Annapolis parleys only a beginning, Bush cautions


Annapolis (US) : US President George W. Bush was set to kick off the first Middle East peace conference in seven years Tuesday by cautioning that it marked only the beginning of efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that difficult challenges lie ahead.

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The parleys are aimed at re-launching peace talks between the sides, and an Israeli foreign ministry official said the negotiations were due to begin in the Middle East within days.

“The task begun here at Annapolis will be difficult,” Bush says in excerpts released by the White House in advance of his 1600 GMT speech to delegates at the conference.

“This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it – and much work remains to be done. Yet the parties can approach this work with confidence. Our job is to encourage the parties in this effort – and to give them the support they need to succeed,” Bush says.

The US president held a three-way meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shortly before opening the conference aimed at jump-starting peace talks between the two sides.

Bush brought Olmert and Abbas together at the US Naval Academy one day after holding separate meetings with the two leaders.

“(Peace) talks will start in the coming days, but not here, in our region,” Yigal Palmor, said a senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Middle Eastern division.

Olmert and Abbas were to speak before the more than 100 delegates from nearly 50 countries in attendance.

During his Monday meetings with the two leaders, he expressed optimism that progress can be made at the conference that he announced last summer after the militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip and was thrown out of the unity government with Abbas’s Fatah Party.

Meanwhile, a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, defiantly told tens of thousands of supporters who rallied in Gaza against the conference that the radical militant group will never recognize Israel.

Other Hamas leaders have said Abbas does not represent the Palestinians and decisions taken at Annapolis will not be binding on the Palestinians.

While Bush was optimistic about the prospects for success, he said Monday the Israelis and Palestinians will work toward a common solution themselves and the US cannot impose a solution.

“The United States cannot impose our vision, but we can help facilitate,” Bush said.

Bush said he was encouraged by the broad attendance, especially from Arab countries whose support for the Bush initiative was viewed as essential for making progress.

After Bush’s remarks opening the conference, the parties were set to attend three full meetings, including one designed to be a “demonstration of international support” for bilateral Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

The second will deal with economic development and reforms in the Palestinian areas, and the third will be a session on comprehensive peace in the Middle East, with Syria likely to raise the issue of the Golan Heights.

A key aim of the parley is to get broad Arab support behind negotiations on a two-state solution and stem popular support for radical Islamists in the West Bank and elsewhere, by showing Palestinians that they have a better chance of realizing their national aspirations by supporting moderate leaders like Abbas.