Bush opens Mid-East peace talks with battle cry

Fight under way for future of the region, the US President declares.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush yesterday launched a major Middle East peace conference, declaring that “a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East”.

He told a gathering of leaders from more than 40 nations at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis that it would not be easy to achieve the goal of creating two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace after decades of conflict.

Brokering a historic peace agreement between both sides – in what is his strongest push for peace in the region after seven years in office – he urged them to work together for the sake of their people.

“Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realise their aspirations is the key to realising their own, and both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state,” said Mr Bush.

“Such a state will provide Palestinians with the chance to lead lives of freedom, purpose and dignity. And such a state will help provide Israelis with something they have been seeking for generations: to live in peace with their neighbours.”

But even as he spoke, doubts remained whether this effort in the twilight of his presidency would yield results. Lingering distrust and sporadic violence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority threaten – as they have for decades – to undermine a belated effort by the Bush administration to forge its foreign policy legacy.

Yet Mr Bush appeared cautiously optimistic during a formal dinner at the State Department on Monday, urging all parties to make the “difficult compromises” needed to attain peace and promising his “personal commitment” to that end.

Earlier, the President met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and heard broadly optimistic forecasts.

The White House meetings marked the first of a three-day summit aimed at reviving peace talks after a seven-year hiatus. Yesterday was the main event, a full day of meetings in what is really the first international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict since the Madrid gathering in 1991.

Officials from 49 countries and international organisations – including long-time Israeli foes Saudi Arabia and Syria – are attending.

Indonesia and Malaysia are also present. Observers said that both states have a key role to play in winning over moderate Muslim states in the Arab world.

But the real measure of the summit will be what happens afterwards. Weakened by the Iraq war, the lame-duck administration might well face difficulties in seeing through complicated negotiations.

Mr Bush’s two allies also face serious problems at home. Mr Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip in June to Hamas Islamists, who have opposed the Annapolis talks, and Mr Olmert is deeply unpopular with Israeli voters and faces opposition to concessions from right-wing members of his coalition.

Underscoring the difficulties, both sides were still haggling on the eve of the conference over a joint document.

While the two parties have agreed that two states be established, the Palestinians have objected to referring to Israel as a “Jewish state”. They argue that this could be held against Palestinians who claim a right to return to parcels of land they once owned inside Israel.

In addition, American and Israeli officials are resisting efforts to include language about “ending the occupation that started in 1967”, a reference to disputed Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The West Bank would form the bulk of an eventual Palestinian state and the two sides must decide which settlements would remain a part of Israel.

Lastly, the Palestinians want the document to set a one-year timetable for reaching a resolution. The Israelis do not want this, but the Americans are open to the idea.

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