Bush launches last-ditch push for Mideast peace

United States President George Bush meets Palestinian and Israeli leaders on Monday in a last-ditch push for Palestinian statehood before he leaves office in 14 months.

Expectations are low for three days of talks in Washington and nearby Annapolis, Maryland, because Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas all face political challenges at home.

In a boost to all three, Syria and Saudi Arabia promised to attend the Annapolis meeting on Tuesday, although Damascus will be sending a deputy minister rather than the foreign minister hoped for by U.S. organizers.

Washington says the hard work will begin only afterward, when both sides will tackle the issues at the core of the conflict — the right of Palestinian refugees to return, Jerusalem, security and the borders of a Palestinian state.

”This conference will signal international support for the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ intention to commence negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of peace between these two peoples,” Bush said in welcoming the two Middle East leaders who arrived over the weekend.

Having largely shunned personal Middle East diplomacy during his seven years in office, Bush will meet Olmert and Abbas separately and together during the meetings. They will be joined at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis by representatives of more than 40 countries.

The Annapolis peace bid follows years of failed US-brokered efforts, the last by Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton, to end decades of conflict and forge a Palestinian state.

From Clinton to Bush

A senior aide to Abbas, Nabil Shaath, told Reuters that after Annapolis, they would pick up from principles already agreed on during the Clinton administration.

”This allows us not to start from the very beginning but continue from something already agreed upon,” Shaath said.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said he expected both sides to recommit to a 2003 road map which provides benchmarks that include a cessation of Jewish settlement in the West Bank occupied by Israel in a 1967 war as well as a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

The United States argues the timing is right to relaunch negotiations despite the challenges faced by the key players.

Abbas in June lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists, who are not invited to Annapolis and have criticised it. Olmert is unpopular with voters, not least due to corruption accusations, and faces opposition to concessions from right-wing members in his fragile governing coalition.

Bush, politically weakened by the unpopular Iraq war, leaves office in January 2009, and the campaign to succeed him is in full swing.

Underscoring the difficulties, the sides have failed to agree on a joint document to be presented at Annapolis, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Hadley have both played that down.

”They haven’t yet arrived at an agreement and I can’t say now whether they will or will not,” said Olmert’s spokesperson, Miri Eisin of the joint document.

Rice invited Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, for dinner on Sunday to try to seal a deal on the document.

The State Department had no details about the dinner or whether Rice had managed to close differences. US officials have said they expect negotiations on the document to continue right up until the Annapolis meeting. – Reuters

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