On December 12, top negotiators for Israel and the Palestinians are scheduled to meet for bilateral discussions designed to tackle the most difficult issues between them. The goal is to conclude a peace treaty by the end of next year. Both sides agreed to launch the talks at the recent Annapolis conference, reviving a peace process that has been dormant for seven years. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this background report from Washington.
Senior leaders from nearly 50 countries and international organizations attended the gathering in Annapolis after months of diplomacy by the Bush administration.
Shortly before the beginning of the conference, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to what was called a joint understanding to begin good-faith negotiations to end the conflict that has endured for 60 years.
In December, a bilateral steering committee is to begin meeting to develop a plan to establish and oversee negotiating teams. The teams will address thorny issues such as borders, the rights of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the success or failure of the dialogue will do much to determine the future of the Middle East.
"We stand today at a critical juncture," he said. "Just as individuals do, nations also go through critical junctures. This region cannot be maintained in a status quo. That is impossible anymore. This region will either go through the path of peace, stability, and moderation, or on the path of extremism, violence and counter-violence."
Both sides also agreed that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will hold meetings every two weeks to advance the peace process.
Martin Indyk, who twice served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, says it is remarkable that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders genuinely appear to want peace efforts to succeed.
"A warmth in their relationship, a commitment to try to resolve their differences, a sense that they are in the same boat together and that they sink or swim together as well," he said. "That is very positive, but left to their own devices, they are not going to be able to resolve their differences and that is where the United States comes in."
A number of Arab countries sent delegations to the Annapolis conference, including states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, notably Saudi Arabia and Syria.
This sparked speculation that talks between Israel and Syria could resume over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East War.
The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, says the issues between Israel and Syria are far less complex than those between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.
"As difficult as the issues are that separate Israel and Syria, I believe they are in order of magnitude less difficult than the issues that separate Israelis from Palestinians. Without predicting success, I simply believe that the prospects are more developed, or brighter on the Israeli-Syrian track for the foreseeable future than on the Israeli-Palestinian track," he explained.
Analysts say Sunni Arab states in the Middle East want to encourage Syria to turn away from its alliance with largely Shi'ite Iran.
While Syrian and Russian officials have indicated support for renewed talks between Damascus and Israel, American officials have said the time is not yet ripe for such discussions. In recent months, Israeli officials have expressed interest in re-opening peace talks with Syria.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, says regardless of what happens in the coming months, Annapolis was a success for the Bush administration.
"For Bush the key achievement was simply to have the summit with Arab state participation, this coming out party for an anti-Iranian coalition, for this new phase of America taking back the initiative in the Middle East," she said. "What happens afterwards between Israelis and Palestinians is really not so much his concern. Bush still has a vision of two states living side-by-side in peace. But the performance suggests that, as much as ever, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are going to be Condoleezza Rice's show. She will get the blame if it fails, and he will be content to take some of the credit if it succeeds."
Secretary Rice has named retired U.S. General James Jones to be a special envoy for Middle East security.
Jones is expected to play a key role in helping both sides carry out the plan, known as the road map, to Middle East peace.
Israelis and Palestinians agreed at the Annapolis conference to immediately begin implementing their obligations under the road map, which was first issued in 2003.
Initial responsibilities require the Palestinians to crackdown on terrorism and the Israelis to stop the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The United States will monitor and judge progress to see if the Israelis and Palestinians are meeting their commitments.