WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush launched a U.S. drive to create a Palestinian state on Monday, with Israelis and Palestinians nearing an agreement to address the toughest issues of their decades-old conflict.
His legacy dominated by war in Iraq — and 14 months before leaving office — Bush began three intense days of Middle East diplomacy in separate Oval Office meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
No one predicted a breakthrough in a conflict that has outlived many a U.S. president and Middle Eastern leader.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, putting her credibility on the line, assembled representatives from more than 40 countries, many driven by a desire to prevent Iran from becoming a dominant — and nuclear — Middle East power.
Joining the talks were Syria, a frontline state formally at war with Israel, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who said Washington had made clear it would “use its full influence” to ultimately bring about a peace agreement.
If the two sides could not agree, he told reporters, “we assume the United States will come up with its own ideas.”
After a Monday dinner at the State Department, participants were to gather Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for a largely symbolic meeting to launch talks between Olmert and Abbas, both politically weakened at home.
Bush told Olmert he looked forward to a serious dialogue with the two leaders “to see whether or not peace is possible.” Bush thanked Abbas for “working hard to implement a vision for a Palestinian state.”
“The United States cannot impose our vision but we can help facilitate,” Bush told Abbas.
Speaking later to reporters, Olmert said he expected negotiations on Palestinian statehood to begin soon after the Annapolis conference but gave no specific dates.
Despite long-standing frictions, Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were close to agreement on a document that would outline the peace goals to follow this week’s sessions.
The document will chart the course for negotiating the toughest issues of the conflict known as “final-status issues” — Jerusalem, borders, security and Palestinian refugees.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said both sides were “converging” on a document and that Rice would meet later with the chief negotiators from each side to help work on it.
Abbas said during his talks with Bush: “Our hope is high that we will come out of this conference in order to begin negotiations on the ‘final-status’ issues, in order to reach a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis so that security and peace can prevail.”
White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on Sunday he expected both sides to recommit to a 2003 “road map” which provides benchmarks that include a cessation of Jewish settlement in the West Bank occupied by Israel in a 1967 war as well as a Palestinian crackdown on militants.
In a reminder of the violence that has caused havoc in the region for decades, two Palestinian Hamas militants were killed by Israeli troops in separate attacks on Monday, local medical workers said.
Abbas in June lost control of Gaza to Hamas Islamists, who were not invited to Annapolis and have criticized it.
In Jerusalem’s walled Old City, at least 15,000 Israelis opposed to this week’s talks gathered at the Western Wall to pray and protest against the Annapolis meeting.
A senior Israeli official played down the chances of any direct talks in Annapolis — or even an exchange of handshakes — with Saudi or Syrian representatives during the conference.
“They (Arab leaders) won’t do it until they get something concrete from Israel,” the official said while declining to be identified.
Washington says the hard work will begin only after this week, when Israelis and Palestinians must tackle the issues at the core of the conflict.
Iran has condemned Annapolis as a ruse for aiding Israel.
“All politicians in the world are aware that this conference is doomed to failure,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a televised speech in Tehran.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Caren Bohan in Washington and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Steve Holland and Howard Goller; Editing by David Storey and Jackie Frank