(Gerald Herbert ~ Associated Press)
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Sealing their pledge with an awkward handshake, Israeli and Palestinian leaders resolved Tuesday to immediately restart moribund peace talks. President Bush said he will devote himself to ending the six-decade conflict in the 14 months he has left in office.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, troubled leaders with fragile mandates for peace, told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors that they are ready for hard bargaining toward an independent Palestinian homeland, a deal that has long eluded Mideast leaders and American presidents.
The launch of the first direct peace talks in nearly seven years was the centerpiece of a 44-nation conference Bush convened amid low expectations in this historic waterfront city east of Washington. Reading glasses on his nose, Bush opened the one-day session by reading the just-completed text of a joint agreement that had taken weeks of contentious negotiating but set only the vaguest terms for the talks to come.
"This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it," Bush said.
The two sides understand that they need a deal, Bush said, and that they need one another.
"I pledge to devote my effort during my time as president to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal," Bush told Abbas and Olmert as the three stood together in the U.S. Naval Academy's majestic Memorial Hall.
"I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government."
Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms' length for most of his nearly seven years in office, arguing that conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories were not right for a more energetic role. Arab allies, among others, have warned that the Palestinian plight underlies other conflicts and feeds grievances across the Middle East and have urged the White House to do more.
Bush seemed to be answering that criticism Tuesday, giving detailed reasons that the time is now. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make peace, there is a wider and unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict and the world understands the urgency of acting now.
Later, in an interview, Bush spoke of the importance of giving beleaguered Palestinians something positive to look forward to -- and he sketched a grim alternative.
Without a hopeful vision, he said, "it is conceivable that we could lose an entire generation -- or a lot of a generation -- to radicals and extremists."
"There has to be something more positive. And that is on the horizon today," the president said.
Bush planned to play host to Olmert and Abbas at the White House for a third day of meetings today, including a rare session with both Mideast leaders at once.
Negotiating teams will hold their first session in the region in just two weeks, on Dec. 12, and Olmert and Abbas plan to continue one-on-one discussions they began earlier this year. In addition, many of the same nations and organizations attending Tuesday's conference will gather again on Dec. 17 in Paris to raise money for the perpetually cash-strapped Palestinians.
The bland language of the agreement released Tuesday reflected the difficulty of the task ahead. The document skirts the fundamental differences that have led to the collapse of all previous peace efforts: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The agreement also commits the United States to be an arbiter of whether both sides are living up to promises unfulfilled in the past, such as corralling militants and freezing construction of Jewish settlements. Israel has resisted outside monitoring.
"I had many good reasons not to come here," Olmert told diplomats including those from Arab states that do not recognize Israel. "Memory of failures in the near and distant past weighs heavy upon us."
Speaking in Hebrew, the Israeli leader decried "dreadful terrorism perpetrated by Palestinian" groups.
Abbas, speaking in Arabic, recited a familiar list of demands. These included calls for Israel to end the expansion of Jewish settlements on land that could be part of an eventual state called Palestine and to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
"Neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other," Abbas said. "It is a joint interest for us and you."
"Peace and freedom is a right for us," he said, "just as peace and security is a right for you and us."
Olmert did promise that the negotiations will address all issues "which thus far have been evaded. We will not avoid any subject. While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable."
For his part, Abbas made an impassioned appeal to Israelis to support the peace process, saying that war and terrorism "belong to the past."
The three leaders gripped hands and gave a stiff smile, then quickly left the conference. Hours of closed-door speeches about the importance and challenges of peace came next, part of the U.S. program to draw potential supporters and potential spoilers into one fold, but the leaders were not there to listen.
To attract Arab backing, the Bush administration included a session in the conference devoted to "comprehensive" peace questions -- a coded reference to other Arab disputes with Israel. Syria came to the conference intending to raise its claim to the strategic Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, and Lebanon wanted to talk about its border dispute with Israel. Rice told reporters that Syria and Lebanon spoke up, but she gave no details.
In a sign of the difficult road ahead, Abbas' speech was immediately rejected by Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that stormed to power in the Gaza Strip in June, a month before Bush announced plans for the peace conference. Hamas now governs the tiny territory and roughly a third of the people on whose behalf Abbas would negotiate a state. Hamas has refused to drop its pledge for Israel's destruction, and the United States and Israel consider the group a terrorist organization.
Abbas "has no mandate to discuss, to agree, or to erase any word related to our rights," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza. "He is isolated (and) represents himself only."
Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters chanted "Death to America" in a Gaza City rally. The marchers, including women in black robes and full face veils, raised their index fingers heavenward in a sign of Islamic devotion, as they denounced the Annapolis conference as a sellout of Palestinian dreams.
In the face of such resistance, Arab support for a new peace process is deemed essential.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has blamed a lack of Arab support for the collapse of the last peace talks in January 2001, just weeks before Bush took office. U.S. officials have said the conference was designed to get Arab "buy-in" at the outset this time.
"It is clear that to succeed these efforts require the sustained and vigorous support of both regional states" and others, Rice said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal clapped politely after Olmert finished his speech.
It was a significant gesture from the nation considered the linchpin of Arab support for the coming talks. Saud, a veteran of past peace efforts, had said before the session that he would not shake Olmert's hand. Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saud told reporters he would do nothing to normalize relations until after Palestinian statehood and other territorial issues were resolved.
Saeb Erekat, a principal Palestinian negotiator, sounded upbeat, saying that after seven years of a stalemate there is an opportunity for serious talks with broad backing.
"We have the whole world. We have President Bush. And it is going to be two states living side by side in peace," Erekat said.
Privately, however, members of the Palestinian delegation expressed doubts that a deal resolving all the so-called final status issues could be reached by the end of Bush's term in January 2009. Some in the Bush administration share that view.
In Israel, many were also decidedly unmoved by the speeches and high-minded goals of the conference. In coffee houses, falafel stands and kiosks in downtown Jerusalem, television screens were turned off or tuned in to soap operas and soccer matches during the speeches.
One kiosk owner, Yaniv Cohen, tuned his television to a local news channel broadcasting the summit, but the five or six customers drinking hot drinks in his shop weren't even paying attention. "We're working people. We don't have time for this," Cohen said.
The Palestinians believe Israel is not ready for total peace and Olmert will face a difficult time politically as any deal takes shape. Meantime, Abbas is seen as reliable, but also weak and a leader who can't in the end deliver on an agreement.
Despite vocal opposition to the latest peace moves, polls indicate a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians favor a negotiated settlement to the conflict. However, most are skeptical that the Annapolis meeting will bear fruit.