The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed yesterday at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis to begin "vigorous, ongoing and continuous" negotiations to try to reach a comprehensive peace settlement by the end of next year.
President Bush read a joint agreement by the two sides at the start of a daylong gathering at the U.S. Naval Academy that illustrated both the promise and pitfalls that lie ahead. Middle East analysts said the agreement fell short of a breakthrough, and Bush emphasized that the pact was only a beginning to further negotiations.
Bush said the Annapolis meeting was designed to "lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation - a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security." The goal, he added, was to "help bring an end to the violence that has been the true enemy of the aspirations of both the Israelis and Palestinians."
Later in the day, Bush acknowledged that failure to make progress in coming talks could lead to further bloodshed and violence in the region. But he told the Associated Press in an Oval Office interview that it was still "worth it to try."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who joined Bush for a celebratory handshake, pledged to meet once every two weeks starting next month. Their designated negotiators, meanwhile, will attempt to forge agreements on security, settlements, water, refugees and other seemingly intractable issues that have blocked previous efforts to end six decades of strife between Israel and its neighbors. The first negotiating session is set for Dec. 12.
Abbas, in remarks at the conference, called on Israel to "end the occupation of all Palestinian-occupied territories" seized in the 1967 war and for East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state.
Olmert, who, like Abbas, might be too weak politically to secure a workable peace, acknowledged that Israel's current borders were likely to change.
"While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable," he said. "I know it. Many of my people know it. We are ready for it."
As if to underscore the words spoken in Annapolis, violence broke out in the West Bank city of Hebron, and Palestinian police used force to break up protests against the peace conference, killing one Palestinian.
Bush's push for the meeting, organized by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, marks a newfound attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the closing months of his presidency. From the outset of his first term, Bush had told aides that he did not want to get bogged down in the Middle East as his predecessors had.
But after inviting representatives of 50 countries and organizations to an Annapolis meeting for which expectations were always low, Bush insisted yesterday that "now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations."
"Difficult to resolve does not mean impossible to resolve," Rice added last night, in remarks that ended the conference, which drew representatives from more than a dozen Arab nations.
The meeting took place in the academy's vast, sun-splashed Memorial Hall, with the delegates arrayed around a horseshoe-shaped table. After speeches by Bush, Abbas and Olmert in the morning, they delivered their own remarks in the afternoon session. Unlike the morning session, that portion was closed to the media and the public.
After arriving in Annapolis, Bush met privately with Abbas and Olmert, and the leaders hammered out final points of the statement that had been the subject of negotiations for weeks.
Israeli and Palestinian diplomats worked until early yesterday to finish the document, a one-page statement whittled down from a five-page draft, diplomats said.
The finished product was less detailed than Palestinian negotiators wanted. The Palestinians had been holding out for a specific timetable of steps that each side would take to ease tensions, as the negotiations were under way, but the final statement referred only to a commitment to "make every effort" to finish a comprehensive peace agreement within a year.
The deadline coincides with the end of Bush's term, which comes only three weeks later, in January 2009.
Negotiations over the document went "right down to the wire," a senior U.S. official said. American and Palestinian officials agreed to Israeli insistence that the document be kept relatively vague and not include a detailed timetable.
To clinch the deal, Bush agreed that the United States would take on the tricky role of monitoring and judging Israeli and Palestinian compliance with a series of steps, including a freeze on settlements, dismantling of Israeli roadblocks and an end to Palestinian terrorist attacks. The two sides previously agreed to those moves in a 2003 document called the "road map to peace."
The sides attempted to implement the road map earlier, but their efforts were derailed by terrorist attacks and violence. The White House said it was not prepared to disclose the names of officials who would monitor and oversee the negotiations.
Arab officials said they were offended by Bush's insistence that Palestinian democratic reforms must accompany the negotiations.
"How can you have a democracy before you have a state?" demanded one Arab diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Other Arabs singled out Bush's reference to Israel as a "homeland for the Jewish people."
"There are 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel who are not Jewish," said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He said no state should have the right to define itself "on religious grounds."
The Saudis also complained that more attention should have been paid to the issues of Lebanon and the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations "must be followed by the launching of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks at the earliest," said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Bush and Rice repeated that the "day after Annapolis" would be more important than the meeting itself, meaning that serious negotiations must get under way after a seven-year hiatus.
Today's meeting with Olmert and Abbas at the White House is designed to symbolize the restarting of the process, officials said.
The next steps
Dec. 12, 2007: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are scheduled to meet for the first time. They are expected to meet every two weeks thereafter.
December 2008: Target date for achieving a peace agreement.
Jan. 20, 2009: Bush administration leaves office.