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Bush Optimistic on Mideast Peace Ahead of Annapolis Conference


President Bush is striking an optimistic tone as delegates to a U.S.-led Mideast Conference prepare to get down to business in Annapolis, Maryland. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports on the eve of the conference, Mr. Bush met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House.

Representatives from nearly 50 countries and international organizations will spend all day Tuesday on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy, where they will focus on ways to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward.

On Monday evening, they gathered in an elegant reception room at the U.S. State Department for a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and heard words of encouragement from President Bush.

"We have come together this week because we share a common goal: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," said President Bush.

In his dinner toast, the president said Israel and the Palestinian Authority now have leaders willing to make the tough decisions needed to bring peace to the region. He said the Annapolis conference will enable other countries and institutions to show their support.

"Achieving this goal requires the commitment of the international community, including the United States," said Mr. Bush. "Tonight, I restate my personal commitment on behalf of the United States to all those in the Middle East who wish to live in freedom and peace: we stand with you at the Annapolis conference and beyond."

Earlier, President Bush met separately at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

As he welcomed the Palestinian leader, Mr. Bush stressed that he does not see his role as a peacemaker, but rather as a facilitator.

"We want to help you," he said. "We want there to be peace. We want the people in the Palestinian Territories to have hope. And we thank you for your willingness to sit down with Israel to negotiate the settlement."

President Abbas welcomed the words of support.

"We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce a 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," said President Abbas.

At the beginning of his meeting with President Bush, Prime Minister Olmert said the presence of so many delegations in Annapolis will make a difference. But he made clear in the end, Israelis and Palestinians will decide their own fate.

"And I thank you for the efforts that you, President Bush, made in order to make it possible, and the Secretary of State, together with us, in order to come to this point where from we and the Palestinians will sit together, in Jerusalem, and work out something that will be very good to create a great hope for our peoples," said Prime Minister Olmert.

Both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas have spoken of their desire to reach an agreement by the time President Bush leaves office 14 months from now.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says in their private meetings, Mr. Bush urged them to seize the moment.

During a session with reporters, Perino also downplayed criticism of the conference from Iran. She said it is not surprising that a country that benefits from chaos is concerned about a process that brings moderate forces together to create a Palestinian state.

Iran was not invited to Annapolis, nor was the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

However several Arab nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel are in attendance. They include Saudi Arabia and Syria.

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