WASHINGTON -- Israeli and Palestinian diplomats, somberly acknowledging the hard work before them, headed back to the Middle East yesterday to see whether they can capitalize on fresh momentum from the Annapolis peace conference.
But Israeli and Arab officials privately expressed skepticism about the outcome of yet another attempt to reach agreement on divisive issues that have more often caused the exchange of bullets and bombs than diplomatic accords.
Bush said he had assured the two leaders that the United States will remain "actively engaged" in negotiations that are supposed to begin immediately.
To that end, the Bush administration named retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO commander, as special envoy to work on security issues with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank.
Senior U.S. officials said the details of Jones' role have not been worked out. Diplomats from the region questioned the extent of the U.S. involvement as talks move forward.
"Overall, we are a frustrated and angry people," said Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League. "How much effort is the United States really going to put into this?"
The Annapolis conference produced a commitment to negotiate, with the hope of a peace agreement by the end of next year. But there was no agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians on a detailed plan of negotiations or a timetable that would set deadlines.
The two sides have pledged to meet Dec. 12 in Jerusalem to begin work.
On two of the "core" issues, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees, one Israeli official said that "between the most liberal Israeli position and the most flexible Palestinian position, there is the Grand Canyon."
In Israel, security forces remained on high alert for possible attacks by the militant Islamic groups Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Hamas, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
"Those people will do whatever they can to try to torpedo this process," said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran - which supports Hezbollah and Hamas with training, money and weapons - lashed out at Israel and the Annapolis conference. According to Iranian state television, he said Israel is "doomed" to collapse and called the peace conference "a failure" because it did not include Hamas. The Palestinian group won parliamentary elections in January and now controls the Gaza Strip. Abbas and his Fatah party control the West Bank.
The Annapolis agreement, announced by Bush on Tuesday, commits Israelis and Palestinians to two simultaneous efforts. One requires the resolution of the central issues of Jerusalem, refugees, water and borders. The other is a set of mutual steps, outlined in the 2003 "road map," including a freeze on Israeli settlements, Palestinian action to begin dismantling terrorist groups, joint security arrangements, the lifting of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian travel and commerce, and other measures.
Bush agreed to Israel's demand that the United States serve as the sole monitor of these efforts, which involve sensitive judgments about whether each side is fulfilling its obligations.
The road map obligates Israel to take "all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life," a statement open to wide interpretation, diplomats said. Palestinians are required to "undertake visible efforts" to halt violence against Israel.
"There is very little common ground" to cooperate on these imprecise goals, said an Israeli diplomat. "And what there is depends on Abbas, and there is not much traction there," he added, referring to the Palestinian president's weak political standing.
"The fundamental problem is, there is no real, viable Palestinian government," said Nathan Brown, director of George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies.
Veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross said the difficulty for the United States in monitoring the negotiations is that "each side defines its obligations minimally and the other maximally," and the Americans will have to judge which is correct.
Already, Arabs suspect that the U.S. government will come down on the side of Israel.
"What is required is for the United States to return to the role of honest broker," Moussa said.
Being an "honest broker," the Arab League official said in a sidelong shot at the Bush administration, "is not asking one party, 'What are your interests? We'll get it from the other side for you.' No, that approach has not produced a thing for the past few years."
But Bush, in a CNN interview, appeared to brush off such potential difficulties and pitfalls.
"Our job is to facilitate those discussions, to make sure they stay on track," he said. "But we can't dictate the results."
Pressed on what role he personally will take as the Palestinians and Israelis grapple in the months ahead, Bush said that "depends on the circumstances." The president added that he, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would make sure that "when they get stuck, we'll help them get unstuck."
Russia has offered to be the host for a conference on the Middle East, possibly in late winter or early spring, according to Russian news agencies. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a date for the conference had not been set.
But Arabs immediately seized on the idea as a useful public check on progress made in the months after Annapolis.
"The conference in Moscow is an important opportunity to look back and see, have they really negotiated in good faith?" Moussa said. "Have [Israelis] really stopped building settlements? And has the United States really acted as an honest broker?"
Special envoy for Mideast security
Name: James L. Jones
Born: Kansas City, Mo.
Education: Bachelor of Science, Georgetown University, 1966
Career: U.S. Marine Corps, 1967-2007; retired Feb. 1 with the rank of general
Positions: Marine Corps commandant, 1999-2003; commander, U.S. European Command, 2003-2006; supreme allied commander, Europe, 2003-2006; president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Energy, March 2007-present; special envoy for Middle East security, named yesterday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
[Sources: U.S. Marine Corps; Associated Press