ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Israeli and Palestinian leaders announced Tuesday that they'll immediately resume negotiations on Middle East peace and a Palestinian state after a seven-year hiatus, with a goal of reaching a treaty before the end of 2008.
The pledge was the main achievement of a one-day international conference in this historic city that seemed long on symbolism and short on substance, despite promises of all-out support from President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas glossed over their deep differences and promised to resolve "all core issues, without exception" in a peace treaty.
The divisive issues include the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the fate of Palestinian refugees, which have frustrated previous attempts to end the conflict.
What made the conference noteworthy was the presence of high-level delegations from nearly 50 countries and international bodies. They included top envoys from more than a dozen Arab states, most of which don't have diplomatic relations with Israel, as well as Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Bush promised full U.S. support for the negotiations. At one point he stood between Olmert and Abbas in the U.S. Naval Academy's ornate Memorial Hall clasping their hands.
"I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government," Bush said. But the president gave no hint of a plan for personal intervention if the talks falter, and he left for Washington after spending little more than three hours in Annapolis.
Rice declared the conference to be "the beginning, not the end, of a new serious and substantive effort to achieve peace in the Middle East." She added: "No one believes failure is an option. We must succeed."
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will conduct the peace talks directly, while Olmert and Abbas will continue to meet every other week. The United States' role will be to referee the implementation of a 2003 peace plan known as the "road map."
Despite the lofty-sounding pledges, it would require nothing short of a diplomatic miracle to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the next 13 months.
Deadlines have come and gone, ruined by violence, fear and the fundamental issues that divide the two peoples. Indeed, the road map promised a final settlement of the conflict by 2005.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the "optics" of the conference were positive, because the joint statement was agreed to — albeit right before the start of the conference — and Arab nations consented to attend.
But there was "no substance," said Levy, of the Washington-based New America Foundation. "No substance is OK if you fill in the substance later. ... (But) there's very little to give one faith in what happens next."
But a senior administration official called the announcement of resumed peace talks "a significant milestone."
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under State Department ground rules, defended Bush's level of involvement, noting that he met with Olmert and Abbas separately at the White House on Monday, huddled with them in Annapolis and will host them again in Washington on Wednesday.
Afif Safieh, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's mission in Washington, said that the conference will serve as a springboard for "accelerated progress."
Bush and Rice will remain engaged, Safieh predicted. "I firmly believe for a variety of reasons — call it ego or legacy — I believe in their sincerity to the process."
Most of the conference took place behind closed doors, where delegates read mostly brief, five-minute statements.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, who came to Annapolis reluctantly, said the negotiations should be expanded immediately to include Israel's conflicts with Lebanon and Syria.
Saud called on Israel to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank, release Palestinian prisoners, halt construction of a barrier between Israel and the Palestinians and remove checkpoints in "occupied Palestinian territories."
"These steps must be seriously implemented on the ground if the final status negotiations are to succeed," he said.
In his speech at the conference's opening, Israeli leader Olmert directed much of his remarks to the Arab diplomats. He praised a 2002 Arab peace initiative that Saudi Arabia had promoted and urged Arab nations to end their attempts to isolate Israel.
"The time has come for you as well," he said.
Olmert and Abbas both dwelt on their people's suffering and the failure of past peace initiatives.
"I had many good reasons not to come here to this meeting," Olmert said, recalling a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings earlier in the decade during his tenure as Jerusalem mayor.
Still, he said, "I believe there is no path which does not involve painful compromise for you, Palestinians, and for us, Israelis. ... I believe it is time. We are ready."
Abbas repeated long-held positions on issues such as Jerusalem — which Palestinians and Israelis both claim as their capital — and dwelt on his people's grievances.
Palestinians deserve "to see a new dawn without occupation, without settlements, without separation walls, without prisons where thousands of prisoners are detained, without siege, without barriers around villages," he said.
In their statement, Olmert and Abbas agreed "to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" and said they would establish a steering committee to oversee the work. Its first meeting will be on Dec. 12.
Despite being planned for months, the one-day Annapolis conference had a last-minute quality to it.
An Arab diplomat complained that the acoustics in Memorial Hall were so bad that foreign ministers couldn't hear each other.
A schedule was published with no times on it and included a session focused on Israel's disputes with Syria and Lebanon, despite U.S. officials' insistence that those wouldn't be on the official agenda.
To read the text of the Israeli-Palestinian statement:
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007