WASHINGTON -- Momentum is accelerating toward a major Mideast conference in Maryland tomorrow, as Syria's surprise decision to attend raised the potential for significant progress -- and also increased the potential for dashed expectations and renewed violence.
Israeli and Palestinian officials struggled yesterday on a last-minute effort to hammer out a joint statement that the Bush administration hoped would lay the groundwork for serious negotiations in the immediate future. But disagreements remained over what that statement would say and what new actions each side should take to signal good intentions.
Israeli negotiators were pushing for a general statement of goals for subsequent talks, and Palestinians were insisting on a more detailed list of points of agreement and disagreement, diplomats said.
The two sides also were arguing over the steps that need to be taken if the negotiations continue.
Palestinians want a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and dismantling of some security checkpoints. Israel is pushing for a tougher crackdown on terrorism by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Each side has indicated a willingness in principle to take such steps, but details of the extent and timing of these steps is at issue, diplomats said.
President Bush called yesterday for a redoubling of efforts "to turn dreams of peace into reality." In a statement released by the White House, he said that the decision by more than 40 countries to send representatives to Annapolis "demonstrates the international resolve to seize this important opportunity to advance freedom and peace in the Middle East."
Bush said he remained "personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."
With officials from virtually all major Arab and Islamic countries joining Israelis at the peace conference in Annapolis, along with diplomats from other major nations, there was no denying the upbeat mood as they prepared for a State Department dinner in Washington this evening that will formally open the conference, the first such gathering in more than a decade.
"All the Arabs are coming -- the whole world is coming, the world is here to tell us, 'We are with you -- do it,'" Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said in Washington.
Israeli officials were slightly less euphoric but agreed that the presence of so many Arab states, some of which are still formally at war with Israel, gives the negotiations a critical new dimension.
"Right now we have leaders on both sides willing to talk," Israeli spokeswoman Miri Eisin said on CNN"s Late Edition. "Let's dig in, get into the business of making peace and go forward."
Israeli officials were not willing yesterday to discuss their stance on the issue that has drawn Syria: the Golan Heights, Syrian territory seized by Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars and formally annexed in 1981.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has worked hard to bring Syria to Annapolis, seeking to detach Syria from its alliance with Iran and pull it into an anti-Iran coalition of moderate Mideast states that the Bush administration is hoping to build.
Officially, Syria is on the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states, and U.S. officials believe Syria still facilitates the travel of foreign suicide bombers through Damascus and into Iraq. U.S. diplomats have said privately that the intent of having Syria represented in Annapolis is to begin to draw it away from such activities in return for gaining visibility and negotiating momentum on the Golan Heights issue.
Publicly, Rice said last week that Annapolis "is about the Palestinian-Israeli track." But she said pointedly that if attendees want to raise other issues during the plenary session tomorrow afternoon, "they're certainly not going to be ruled out of order."
Israel seemed willing to entertain the issue.
"The prime minister has stated clearly that we want peace with Syria," Eisin said.
Asked whether Israel is prepared to make concessions on the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned, she responded: "We understand peace comes with difficult compromises on both sides."
From a distance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was not invited, took a rhetorical shot in the direction of Annapolis, saying that the huge international gathering only serves the purposes of "the Zionist occupiers" and would "not have any benefit."
The conference has also been criticized by leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian group that seized power in Gaza this summer.