WASHINGTON -- With a rhetorical nod toward "a more hopeful vision" of freedom and prosperity in the Middle East, President Bush opened a peace conference last night aimed at spurring a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
"We share a common goal - two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush told conference participants on the eve of today's daylong session at the U.S. Naval Academy campus in Annapolis.
Achieving peace "requires difficult compromises," he said at a State Department dinner. But "we stand with you, at the Annapolis conference and beyond."
Earlier, the president held separate White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In brief remarks to reporters during a photo session, Bush told Olmert that the conference would demonstrate "whether or not peace is possible."
"I'm optimistic," Bush insisted.
But in his meeting with Abbas, Bush showed reluctance to see the United States play a more aggressive part in the peace process. He noted pointedly that Americans "cannot impose our vision" for peace between Palestinians and Israelis and can only "help facilitate."
Bush seemed to be stepping away from a U.S. role as monitor of two important channels of work expected to follow Annapolis: negotiations on a comprehensive peace settlement and implementation of practical steps both sides have already agreed on to ease tensions.
This morning, delegates from 50 countries and organizations, from Algeria to Yemen, are to meet at Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy to hear an address by Bush.
The delegates will then break for refreshments at Smoke Hall, while Olmert heads to a luncheon with Gov. Martin O'Malley at the governor's mansion. O'Malley and Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, met during a visit to Israel by the then-Baltimore mayor in 2005.
"It is an honor for the state of Maryland and the city of Annapolis to host this historic occasion," O'Malley said in a statement. "I want to welcome President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the State of Maryland, and commend all parties involved with the peace conference tomorrow for their efforts to bring about a just and lasting peace in the Middle East."
Conference delegates will reconvene for an afternoon of speeches chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As of last night, no limit had been put on the number or length of speeches.
That session is expected to last at least until 7 p.m., or "as long as [Rice] feels there is a good, solid and productive discussion," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Unlike previous Maryland summits at Camp David and Wye River, the Annapolis conference - beset by low expectations - has been cast less as a negotiation than as a beginning for renewed talks between Palestinians and Israelis that the two sides said could be concluded by the end of Bush's term in 14 months.
"I hope that Annapolis will be remembered as the starting point of reigniting the peace process that led to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. "I think it has far greater implications than just to Israel and the Palestinians. It really is perhaps the linchpin for a much more stable Middle East."
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators spent much of the day working on a joint statement which, at a minimum, was to spell out a negotiating process on the toughest issues for a comprehensive settlement: the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, drawing borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, and cooperative security arrangements.
Rice met with both sides, and U.S. officials said they expect a written statement by tomorrow when Olmert and Abbas are to meet again with Bush at the White House.
"They are putting [ideas] down on paper, they are making progress, converging on an understanding of what they want to accomplish" in future negotiations, McCormack said.
In the Middle East, a senior official of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that seized power in the Gaza Strip last summer, branded the Palestinian representatives in Annapolis as traitors.
"Anyone who stands in the face of resistance or fights it or cooperates with the occupation against it is a traitor," said Mahmoud Zahar, according to a report by Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. He said no one has the right "to give up one inch" of Palestinian territory.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli TV that the Annapolis conference is "a continuation of one-sided concessions" by Israel, the Associated Press reported.
Israeli officials said they will begin reducing electric power to Gaza next week in response to rocket attacks launched against Israel from Gaza, Haaretz reported. The decision was sharply criticized by the European Union, which, in a statement, also condemned "the unacceptable and continued attacks" on Israel.
In the midst of the continued turmoil, last night's opening dinner marked a return of American diplomacy to the Middle East after seven years in which the Bush administration has focused largely on Afghanistan and Iraq and what it calls a global war on terrorism.
More recently, the United States has sought to build a coalition of moderate Arab states and others against the increasingly aggressive ambitions of Iran, which has funded and armed extremist groups across the region and is working on a nuclear weapons program, Bush administration officials say.
State Department officials expressed satisfaction that every country invited to the conference had agreed to come, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, key Arab states whose endorsement of the negotiating process and a comprehensive settlement would be seen as critical.
As for three important regional actors who won't be in attendance - Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah - McCormack said that they "decided not to meet the conditions for an invitation": a commitment to democratic reform and "turning away from the use of violence."
Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations were reluctant to come without receiving some assurances that Israel was prepared to make substantial concessions in future talks, diplomats said privately. Syria has sought mention of the disputed Golan Heights, which it is expected to bring up in Annapolis.
On the issue of the United States' serving as a monitor, McCormack said the country is "going to play an important role going forward." But he stressed that other countries, including the "Quartet" that includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, might also be involved in ensuring compliance by the two sides with confidence-building measures that are to accompany negotiations on a comprehensive peace accord.
"I understand why they don't want to do it," veteran Middle East diplomat David Mack said, speaking of the Bush administration's reluctance to take on a monitor role. "But it is necessary. The idea that the two parties, left to themselves, can somehow achieve real progress is, I think, incorrect."
9:50 a.m.: President Bush meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
11 a.m.: Bush speaks to the assembled delegates from 50 countries and organizations at Memorial Hall, U.S. Naval Academy.
12:45 p.m.: Gov. Martin O'Malley meets with Olmert for lunch at Government House.
AFTERNOON: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chairs a meeting of the delegates. All will be offered a chance to speak. The session is expected to last well into the evening.
Key discussion points
Palestinians want complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Israel wants 1949 cease-fire line changed to include main West Bank settlements. Possible solution: Modification of the cease-fire line and compensation by giving Palestinians some Israeli territory.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as capital of their state.
Israel offers control of some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Possible solution: Sharing control of the city.
Palestinians demand the right of return for refugees and descendants displaced by the 1948-1949 war.
Israel believes refugees must be resettled in the new Palestinian state or where they now live.
Possible solution: Compensation for most, while allowing a token number to live in Israel.
Palestinians demand that all Jewish settlements in the West Bank be dismantled.
Israel wants to keep main settlement blocs under its sovereignty. Possible solution: Israel gets its main West Bank settlements, Palestinians get some Israeli land.
Israel, represented by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left) and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The Palestinians, represented by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (above) and senior officials.
The United States, host, represented in Annapolis by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The Saudis, represented by Prince Saud al-Faisal (left), the Saudi foreign minister and nephew of King Abdullah.