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Bush to Meet Abbas, Olmert Ahead of Mideast Conference

President Bush meets Monday at the White House with Israeli and Palestinian leaders as delegations gather for a U.S.- led Mideast conference in nearby Annapolis, Maryland. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports the goal is to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a new phase.

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. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

It 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 Israel's right to exist. Syria was the last to agree to attend, relaying word on Sunday that it would send a deputy foreign minister.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli government welcomed the news from Damascus and downplayed any disappointment that the Syrians refused to send a higher level official.

During an appearance on CNN's Late Edition Miri Eisen said the mere fact both Riyadh and Damascus will be at the table is important. And while the talks will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, she indicated the Annapolis meeting could open up new avenues toward resolving Israel's dispute with Syria over the fate of the Golan Heights.

"We have stated clearly that we are for peace not just with the Syrians, but with the Palestinians, that we understand that peace comes with difficult compromises on both sides," said Miri Eisen.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is hosting the Annapolis conference, has spoken of the desire to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement before President Bush leaves office in January 2009. Miri Eisen told CNN she hopes that target can be achieved, but noted extremely difficult issues must still be negotiated.

"When you get into the nitty-gritty, yes, there are not just little details, there are difficulties and we are trying to address them," she said.

Appearing on the same CNN program, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also appeared cautiously optimistic. He said a deal in a year is possible, adding that on both sides there is what he called a "need for peace."

"I think there is a genuine need on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side," said Saeb Erekat. "You know, agreements reflect the need. And I think Palestinians and Israelis need to make that historic decision."

He stressed that for the last four months Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been working on the thorniest issues, and a negotiating process is already in place.

"And I really believe we don't need to reinvent the wheel," he said. "I think it is time for decisions, not the negotiations."

White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says it is clear both sides want the peace process to move forward, adding the Bush administration feels the time is right to bring them together with strong international support.

During a conference call with reporters, Hadley stressed President Bush has no intention of imposing a solution or a timetable on anyone. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders have spoken of their own desire to reach an agreement that will lead to two states living side by side in peace. Hadley said the United States will do all it can to facilitate as they strive to reach that elusive goal, but the parties will chose their own course and make their own decisions.