Bush 'optimistic' as he launches drive for peace in Middle East
Amid low expectations and criticism that the opening conference is little more than a photo opportunity, President George Bush will launch a new drive today for a comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians which his administration hopes will yield the outline of a deal before he leaves office in January 2009.
In successive meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House yesterday, Mr Bush said he was "optimistic" about the outcome. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, was equally upbeat, saying the two sides would "sit down together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good."
As their leaders conferred in the Oval Office, US, Israeli and Palestinian officials predicted that agreement would be reached over the wording of a joint statement to be presented to the peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, setting out the goals of the negotiations. Fifty delegations are attending the one-day conference, to be held in the ornate Memorial Hall of the US Naval Academy.
They include not just the two protagonists but 16 Arab countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, whose presence was in doubt until almost the last moment. A sign of the tensions surrounding the event came last week when the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, who will head his country's delegation, made clear he would not shake hands with any Israeli officials.
Nonetheless the presence of so many Arab countries is perhaps the most positive part of the proceedings – a symbol that, for all its resentment and dislike of the Jewish state, the Arab world is standing squarely behind the Palestinians, enhancing the credibility of any agreement that emerges.
"This time it is different because we are going to have a lot of participation," Mr Olmert said.
The tone will be set by Mr Bush's opening speech. It will be scrutinised less for any detailed proposals than for clues that, after seven years of indifference to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, this time he is ready to work all-out for peace. "The US will not impose a vision but can facilitate a solution," Mr Bush said as he met the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.
But Annapolis is only the first step on a very long journey. The basic problems which have defeated all previous US efforts to broker a settlement – final borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem – are, if anything, more contentious than in the past.
Have your say: Your views on the likelihood of a Middle East peace agreement
Lasting peace is not achievable without Hamas. I was in the West Bank for three months as a peace worker in 2006 when the majority of Palestinians voted for them because they were engaged in schools and social welfare projects. Have we learnt nothing from Northern Ireland and how we achieved peace through talking to the IRA?
The Annapolis conference is another monumental exercise in futility, mendacity and failure. Just take a fleeting look at participants and attendees. To expect peace from these "leaders" is very much like seeking safety in snake holes and justice at the dens of inequity.
Hebron, West Bank
Genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians liesin the day-to-day actions of grassroot activists. It is these unsung, inspirational heroes who are the blessed peacemakers.
Israel has no intention of doing anything. What it intends to do after this conference is wade into Gaza and kill Palestinians.
The Palestinians can have a viable state with the freedom to travel and an education and so on whenever they like. All they have to do is put down the gun.
Too little, too late! Bush has an eye on his place in history, and feels that this is his best chance to leave a legacy other than an unjust war.