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Israeli and Palestinian Leaders Develop Work Plan

President Bush invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the White House to formally inaugurate the first direct negotiations in seven years between the two sides.

The president told a conference in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday that the two sides have agreed to meet regularly and make every effort to conclude an agreement by the end of 2008. While many question whether the time is right, the president said a peace process is needed now more than ever.

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.

"The time is right because the battle is underway for the future of the Middle East," Bush said in a speech Tuesday. "We must not cede victory to the extremists — with their violent actions and contempt for human life. The extremists are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people, a vision that feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the holy land."

The president's comments seemed to be aimed at Iran, which was not part of the Annapolis meeting and not mentioned in the speeches. Washington accuses Tehran of bankrolling terrorist groups in the Middle East, including the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which now controls Gaza.

Analysts see the threat of a rising Iran as one of the driving forces for the conference, which brought officials from Arab states that do not recognize Israel together with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert used his speech at Annapolis to address them.

"There isn't a single Arab state in the north, in the east or in the south with which we do not seek peace," he said in Hebrew through a translator. "There isn't a single Muslim state with which we do not want to establish diplomatic relations. Anyone who wants to make peace with us, we say to them, from the bottom of our hearts (switching to Arabic) welcome."

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said he did not come for theatrics and would not shake Olmert's hand. Normalization — he argued — comes after peace. As for the conference, Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir said he heard some good promises — both from Olmert and from President Bush.

"We've heard positive things, but the proof is always going to be in the implementation," he said. America had a great president once, Harry Truman, and his attitude was 'show me.' We would like to see the promises turned into deeds."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also came with a long list of issues he said need to be addressed if Palestinians are to see a "new dawn, without occupation and separation walls."

"Mr. President, what we are facing today is not just the challenge of peace, but we are facing a test of our credibility as a whole," he said through a translator. "It is a test that would leave its indelible impact on the future of the region and on the relationship among its peoples and the international powers that are entrusted in the peace, stability of our region on the other hand."

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."

Negotiating teams will hold their first session in the region in just two weeks, on Dec. 12, and Olmert and Abbas plan to continue one-on-one discussions they began earlier this year. In addition, many of the same nations and organizations attending Tuesday's conference will gather again on Dec. 17 in Paris to raise money for the perpetually cash-strapped Palestinians.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.