Bush Meets Israeli, PA Leaders Ahead of Mideast Conference.
By Paula Wolfson (VOA-White House)
President Bush meets Monday at the White House with Israeli and Palestinian= leaders as delegations gather for a U.S. - led Mideast conference in nearb= y Annapolis, Md.
The conference begins with a dinner at the State Department Monday evening,= followed by a full day of talks on Tuesday on the grounds of the U.S. Nava= l Academy in Annapolis. It will mark the first time in more than a decade t= hat Israelis will sit around a table with representatives of 16 Arab nation= s and the Arab League.
Among the Arab states pledging to attend the conference are Saudi Arabia an= d Syria - neither of which recognizes Israel's right to exist. Syria was th= e last to agree to attend, relaying word on Sunday that it would send a dep= uty foreign minister.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli government welcomed the news from Damascus an= d downplayed any disappointment that the Syrians refused to send a higher l= evel official.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is hosting the Annapolis conferenc= e, has spoken of the desire to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlemen= t before Bush leaves office in January 2009
On CNN, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat appeared cautiously optimistic. = He said a deal in a year is possible; adding that on both sides there is wh= at he called a "need for peace. I think there is a genuine need on the Isra= eli side and the Palestinian side. You know, agreements reflect the need. A= nd I think Palestinians and Israelis need to make that historic decision."
He stressed that for the last four months Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmer= t and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been working on the thornies= t issues, and a negotiating process is already in place. "And I really beli= eve we don't need to reinvent the wheel. I think it is time for decisions, = not the negotiations."
White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said it is clear both = sides want the peace process to move forward, adding the Bush administratio= n feels the time is right to bring them together with strong international = support.
During a conference call with reporters, Hadley stressed Bush had no intent= ion of imposing a solution or a timetable on anyone. He said Israeli and Pa= lestinian leaders have spoken of their own desire to reach an agreement tha= t will lead to two states living side by side in peace. Hadley said the Uni= ted States would do all it can to facilitate as they strive to reach that e= lusive goal, but the parties will chose their own course and make their own= decisions.