Bush Says Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Off to a Hopeful Start

After meeting with Olmert and Abbas, Bush inaugurates final status talks at brief White House ceremony.

United States President George W. Bush, capping an intense flurry of diplomatic activity, said Wednesday the agreement by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume long-stalled peace talks was a hopeful beginning.

Bush was joined at the White House by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a brief ceremony a day after they agreed to try to reach an agreement by the end of 2008.

"One thing I have assured both gentlemen is that the United States will be actively engaged in the process," Bush said. "We will use our power to help you as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side-by-side in peace with Israel."

"Yesterday was an important day, and it was a hopeful beginning," Bush said, referring to the one-day peace conference held Tuesday in Annapolis. "No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond. I appreciate the commitment of these leaders, working hard to achieve peace. I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible, and they wouldn't be here either if they didn't think peace was possible."

Unlike their three-way handshake on Tuesday, the leaders did not shake hands at the White House.

"I appreciate your courage and leadership," Bush said. "It's an honor to call you friends. And it's an honor to have watched you yesterday as you laid out your respective visions for something we all want, which is peace in the holy land."

"What has been remarkable about this process is that they are now ready to go," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told ABC during a round of TV interviews Wednesday morning in which she praised unprecedented support for the peace process from Arab states.

"It's going to be hard, but you had support in that room that you had not had from Arab states in the past," Rice said on NBC.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Wednesday that President George W. Bush will not force a solution on Israelis and Palestinians nor impose a U.S. peace plan as they work toward Middle East peace.

"The president will not force a resolution of differences nor impose a peace plan with his name on it," Hadley said in prepared remarks for a speech on the Middle East at Johns Hopkins University.

"What the president will do is use his relationships with the parties to help them build the confidence necessary to make hard choices for peace. He has made clear that he is only a phone call away," Hadley said.

The final status negotiations will begin on December 12, Olmert and Abbas announced in a joint statement read out by Bush at the conference in Annapolis on Tuesday.

On Tuesday following the meeting, Bush admitted to reporters that he was worried about the consequences if peace talks failed, but said: "It is worth it to try."

"I don't think it's a risk to try for peace," he said. "I think it's an obligation."

In a meeting with Olmert and Abbas before the conference, Bush said that the U.S. would not impose a solution on the parties, but would assist them.

In the joint statement, which was finalized only a few minutes before the conference, Olmert and Abbas promised to try to conclude the final-status agreement by the end of 2008. However, implementation of the agreement will be conditional on fulfillment of each side's obligations under the road map peace plan.

Both sides agreed that Washington will determine whether those obligations have been fulfilled. Bush has chosen General Jim Jones, a former commander of both NATO and the American forces in Europe, to serve as the arbiter, and Jones is due to arrive in the region in the coming days.

The first stage of the road map requires the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and Israel to freeze settlement construction and dismantle illegal outposts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a follow-up conference in Moscow in the spring of 2008. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa supported this idea, and said that negotiations should be expanded to include Syria and Lebanon as well.

The Saudi foreign minister also urged that negotiations begin on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, adding that much is riding on the success of the Annapolis initiative. He urged Israel to freeze construction of the settlements and the "wall" (i.e. the separation fence), free prisoners and evacuate outposts.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged the Arab states to "get off the fence" and understand that normalization is not a prize for Israel. She proposed normalization in stages.

Addressing the Palestinians, she urged them to stop mourning Israel's establishment and instead build a state of their own.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Palestinians to "say goodbye to violence" and promised to do whatever he could to help the negotiations succeed.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the Annapolis summit's closing speech that the negotiations for a final settlement must not be allowed to fail.

"No one believes that failure is an option," Rice told reporters at the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. She also stated that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a national interest of the U.S.