WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush assured Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday the United States would actively engage in peacemaking, despite deep skepticism over chances for a deal before he leaves office.
Just 24 hours after pledging in Annapolis, Maryland, to try to forge a treaty by the end of 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Bush for the ceremonial resumption of the first formal peace talks in seven years.
The White House meeting capped a three-day diplomatic flurry, including a 44-nation Middle East conference, that underscored Bush's aim to achieve in his final 14 months in office what has eluded U.S. leaders for decades.
Once wary of taking a hands-on role in peacemaking, Bush promised to put U.S. power to work for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, adding, "I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe peace was possible."
Shoulder to shoulder with the two leaders in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said, "One thing I've assured both gentlemen is that the United States will be actively engaged in the process."
But Bush would neither force a solution on Israelis and Palestinians nor impose a U.S. peace plan, his national security adviser Stephen Hadley said, adding the president " has made clear he is only a phone call away."
Trying to reinforce the seriousness of the U.S. commitment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Marine Gen. James Jones, who was NATO commander in Europe until 2006, to be her special envoy for Middle East security.
But there was no sign Bush was planning the kind of sustained personal engagement he had shunned after his predecessor, Bill Clinton, failed to broker a peace accord in 2000 in the twilight of his presidency.
Bush brushed aside a question in a CNN interview about whether he was prepared to go to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace.
"Going to a region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations. It is working with the principals -- Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas. That's how you get things done. Now if I have to call them together, I will," Bush said.
The two sides will meet on December 12 in Jerusalem but serious questions remain about the viability of the renewed effort.
All three leaders -- Bush, Abbas and Olmert -- are politically weak at home, raising doubts whether they can make good on their promises, and lingering mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians will make any progress difficult.
In a sign of the obstacles ahead, Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip rejected the new peace drive. Violence also flared, with Israeli missiles killing two Hamas naval officers in the southern part of the coastal territory.
In Brussels, Karen AbuZayd, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which administers aid to Palestinian refugees, said a peace process that did not include Hamas was not "viable at all."
Commentators in the Arab world dismissed the conference as a media event designed to repair Bush's image damaged by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Further signaling the fragility of peace moves, Olmert said the sides would try to reach agreement next year but this was not a firm deadline.
"I want to remind you we said we'd make every effort to reach an agreement by 2008 but we didn't commit to completing it by the end of 2008," Olmert told reporters.
Bush, who faced criticism for not doing more sooner to resolve the conflict, had opened Tuesday's conference at the U.S. Naval Academy by reading a joint statement painstakingly negotiated by the two sides but which skirted the core issues that divide them.
The document had been meant to address the toughest "final status" issues of the conflict -- Jerusalem, borders, security and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Adam Entous, Sue Pleming, Mohammed Assadi, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Caren Bohan and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Matt Spetalnick and Howard Goller; Editing by Peter Cooney