Bush, Mideast Leaders Prep For Conference

Monday President Bush commenced an unusually intense round of personal diplomacy, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the Oval Office in preparation for a first in his administration: playing host to a Middle East peace conference.

"The United States cannot impose our vision, but we can help facilitate," Bush told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For his part, Abbas said he hopes the one-day meeting at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday will produce negotiations "over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also said he hopes the Annapolis session will "launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians." The cautious rhetoric used by both Abbas and Olmert reflects a widespread desire to keep expectations for major progress low. Rather than laying out a blueprint for peace that sketches out solutions to all of the sticky final-status issues--Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders, and security--the Annapolis conference has evolved into something more modest: symbolizing international, especially Arab, support for regular talks on those issues even as the Israelis and Palestinians carry out initial confidence-building steps.

Some 50 national and other delegations will join the meeting, most of them arriving in the Washington area today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says her hope is to wrap up a peace deal by the end of the Bush administration. But analysts say that goal will be attainable only if the parties are willing to make historic concessions and if Bush is deeply involved throughout the process--something he, in the past, has shown great reluctance toward.

By Thomas Omestad