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Rice Pledges Urgent Annapolis Agreement Follow-Up

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pledging urgent follow-up work to Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Annapolis, Maryland to resume final-status peace negotiations after a seven-year interruption. President Bush meets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House Wednesday to help inaugurate the process. VOA's David Gollust reports from Annapolis.

The agreement to re-start the talks was the result of weeks of U.S.-led diplomacy, and administration officials say the deal was struck only a short time before President Bush announced it at the start of the Annapolis meeting.

The parties agreed to the immediate launch of negotiations for a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict, and to make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.

They also committed to implement their respective obligations under the 2003 international road map to peace, and agreed that the United States will monitor and judge their fulfillment of the confidence-building plan.

The announcement gave no indication of progress on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute such the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees, and U.S. officials concede that the peace timetable announced by the leaders will be difficult to keep.

But in a statement closing the meeting late Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said difficult to resolve does not mean impossible, especially with the kind of international engagement shown in Annapolis.

"This work will be hard.It involves risks and sacrifices for all concerned. But today's events have demonstrated unambiguously that the international community will fully support the path the parties have chosen," she said. "President Bush and I have pledged the unwavering support of the United States to realize this goal. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a national interest for the United States, and we now have a real opportunity to make progress."

Senior officials of nearly 50 countries and world organizations attended the conference, among them several Arab states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, notably Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Rice said that in a concluding Annapolis plenary session, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa reaffirmed the organization's 2002 peace initiative, offering Israel Arab-wide political recognition if it reaches peace with the Palestinians and withdraws from all occupied Arab land.

The Secretary of State had put heavy stress on having a big Arab presence in Annapolis, both to shore up the position of President Abbas in his confrontation with militant Islamic movement Hamas, and to try to persuade the Israeli public that compromises for peace will be rewarded.

In his conference address, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said he hopes the Annapolis agreement will lead to a regional peace, but said to get there, Arab countries have to reach out and end decades of hostility towards the Jewish state.

"The time has come for you as well. You cannot continue to stand by, indefinitely, standing and watching from the sidelines, watching the peace train going by," Mr. Olmert said. "The time has come to end the boycott, the alienation, and the obliviousness towards the state of Israel. It does not help you and it hurts us."

President Abbas for his part stressed the Palestinians' insistence on a comprehensive settlement of the refugee issue and having the capital of a new Palestinian state in East Jerusalem. Also heard through an interpreter, he said despite the Palestinians' grievances, they are ready to live as neighbors with Israel:

"Neither us nor you are begging for peace from each other. It is a common interest for us and for you," said Mr. Abbas. "Peace and freedom is a right for us, in as much as peace and security is a right for you and for us. The time has come for the cycle of blood, violence and occupation to come to an end."

A steering committee being set up by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to advance the peace process is to begin work December 12, a few days before a international donors conference in Paris aimed at helping build institutions for Palestinian statehood. Rice said the Middle East quartet partners-the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - will also convene in Paris on ways to support the Annapolis agreement.