Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, troubled leaders with fragile mandates for peace, told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors that they are ready for hard bargaining toward an independent Palestinian homeland, a deal which has long eluded Mideast leaders and American presidents.
As evidence of how tenuous the peace negotiations are, CBS News correspondent Bill Plante reports that when President Bush arrived in Annapolis this morning, Israel and the Palestinians still could not agree on an agenda. CBS News has learned that Secretary of State Rice pressured Palestinian President Abbas to "come up with something to avoid the appearance of failure."
The launch of the first direct peace talks in nearly seven years was the centerpiece of a 44-nation conference Bush convened amid low expectations in this pretty, historic waterfront city east of Washington. Reading glasses on his nose, Bush opened the one-day session by reading the just-completed text of a joint agreement that had taken weeks of contentious negotiating, but set only the vaguest terms for the talks to come.
"This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it," Bush said.
The two sides understand that they need a deal, Bush said, and that they need one another.
"I pledge to devote my effort during my time as president to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal," Bush told Abbas and Olmert as the three stood together in the U.S. Naval Academy's majestic Memorial Hall.
"I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government."
Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms' length for most of his nearly seven years in office, arguing that conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories were not right for a more energetic role. Arab allies, among others, have warned that the Palestinian plight underlies other conflicts and feeds grievances across the Middle East, and have urged the White House to do more.
Bush seemed to be answering that criticism Tuesday, giving detailed reasons that the time is now. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make peace, there is a wider and unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict and the world understands the urgency of acting now.
Later, in an interview with The Associated Press, Bush spoke of the importance of giving beleaguered Palestinians something positive to look forward to - and he sketched a grim alternative.
Without a hopeful vision, he said, "it is conceivable that we could lose an entire generation - or a lot of a generation - to radicals and extremists."
"There has to be something more positive. And that is on the horizon today," the president said.
Prior to the conference's start, Israeli spokesman Mark Regev told CBS News, "Today is a good day for peace. But the real challenge is what happens in the weeks and months ahead. The real challenge is the follow through."