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Bush Meets Olmert, Abbas Ahead of Mideast Conference


President Bush has met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House to set the stage for Tuesday's Mideast Conference in nearby Annapolis, Maryland. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports Mr. Bush says he is optimistic about the chances for progress in the peace process.

The three days of intensive Mideast diplomacy began with a handshake at the White House, as President Bush sat down for one-on-one talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The president said he is looking forward to working with both Mr. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to advance the peace process.

"I am looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the president of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible. I am optimistic. I know you are optimistic. And I thank you for your courage," he said.

White House officials say the president called the Mideast conference because he feels there are now leaders in place in Israel and the Palestinian Authority who are determined to tackle the tough issues and move forward. They say his goal in Annapolis is to create a launch pad for renewed negotiations, and to mobilize international support for the process.

Prime Minister Olmert said the presence of so many delegations in Annapolis is sure to make a difference.

"This time it is different, because we are going to have lots of participants in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," he said. "This will be a bilateral process, but the international support is very important for us."

Later, at the start of a separate meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush reaffirmed he does not see his role as that of a peacemaker. Mr. Bush stressed - as his aides have in the past - that he has no intention of imposing a solution but hopes to act as a facilitator.

President Abbas welcomed the gesture, and said he is hopeful about the prospects for peace.

"We have a great deal of hope that this conference would produce permanent status negotiations - expanded negotiations - over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people - an agreement to secure security and stability," Mr. Abbas said.

The Annapolis Conference will mark the first time in more than a decade that Israelis will sit around a table with representatives of 16 Arab nations and the Arab league.

Among the Arab states pledging to attend the conference are Saudi Arabia and Syria - neither of which recognizes the state of Israel.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has condemned the meeting, as has the government of Iran, which has predicted it will end in failure. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says she is not surprised that a country like Iran that benefits from chaos would be concerned about a process that brings moderate forces together to establish a Palestinian state and set the stage for peace between Israel and Palestine.

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