Amid President George W. Bush's embrace, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, and Mahmoud Abbas shook hands on Tuesday. (Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press)
By Steven Lee Myersand Helene Cooper
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland: The Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed themselves Tuesday to negotiate a peace treaty by the end of 2008, setting themselves a deadline for ending a conflict that has endured for six decades.
President George W. Bush announced the agreement at the opening of an international gathering here at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he declared that a peace between Israelis and Palestinians was part of a broader struggle against extremism in the Middle East.
"We meet to lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation: A democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security," Bush said, appearing in the academy's Memorial Hall, flanked by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian authority.
"We meet to help bring an end to the violence that has been the true enemy of the aspirations of both the Israelis and Palestinians."
In the presence of representatives of 49 nations and international organizations, including Arab countries that do not recognize Israel, Olmert and Abbas pledged to "to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" to conclude a treaty that would recognize two neighboring states.
"Achieving this goal is not going to be easy," Bush said, addressing participants with sweeping language declaring that the time had come for peace and Palestine. Olmert and Abbas echoed the same time-has-come refrain in their own remarks.
"If it were easy," Bush went on, "it would have happened a long time ago."
The agreement - or joint understanding, as it was called - fell short of the wide-ranging five-page document that Palestinian officials have been pushing. But several Palestinian officials said Tuesday they were nevertheless happy with what they got.
Instead, the agreement merely creates a framework for talks, and does not address the fundamental issues between Israel and a future Palestine. Those include Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees who left, or were forced to leave, their homes in Israel.
The agreement was reached after weeks of intense negotiations and it was not clear until Bush stepped to the podium, beneath a replica battle flag from the War of 1812 declaring "Don't Give Up the Ship," whether they would agree on anything at all. Bush met privately with the two leaders Tuesday morning to overcome last minute disputes that had stalled the agreement on Monday night.
Although their statement addresses the most controversial issues indirectly, Abbas shook hands with Olmert and Bush and then pointedly and emotionally put all of the most divisive issues squarely at the center of the talks that are scheduled to begin on Dec. 12.
"We have to start comprehensive and deep negotiations on all issues of final status, including Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, water and security and others," he said.
When Olmert spoke, he promised that "the negotiations will address all the issues which thus far have been evaded."
"We want peace," he said, also speaking emotionally and in highly personal terms. "We demand an end to terror, an end to incitement and to hatred.
"We are prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realize these aspirations," he said.
The gathering brought about the highest-level official contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not have diplomatic relations.
Bush, as did others, emphasized Tuesday that this was only the beginning of a peace process, not its conclusion. But he cast the latest diplomatic effort as a historic one, offering the hope of peace in a violent land.
"The time is right because a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists," Bush said. "With their violent actions and contempt for human life, the extremists are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people: a vision that feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the Holy Land. If this vision prevails, the future of the region will be endless terror, endless war, and endless suffering."
One Palestinian official said that one obstacle to the joint statement had been Israel's refusal to include a reference to the Arab League peace initiative. That initiative, which was reaffirmed by Arab states this year, calls on Israelis and Palestinians to reach an "agreed" resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.
Israeli officials do not like that term and have been adamant that Palestinian refugees have a right of return only to a future Palestinian state, and not to Israel. They fear that including the Arab League language in the joint statement could handcuff them later in negotiations.
State Department officials had been pressuring both sides to reach agreement on the joint statement and stepped up their efforts in recent days.
One said Tuesday morning that simply organizing the meeting amounted to a success, especially given the participation of so many Arab nations.
The participants included many other nations that have not previously been deeply involved in Middle East peace efforts, but whose presence Tuesday gave the meetings a broad international cast. Among them were China, Brazil, Poland and South Africa.
In one sign of the event's extraordinary nature, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, took notes during Olmert's remarks, his head slightly bowed. When the Israeli finished, he politely clapped his hands.
Palestinian killed in Hebron
A Palestinian man was killed Tuesday in the West Bank city of Hebron as Palestinian Authority police officers loyal to Abbas fired their weapons to disperse protests against the Middle East peace gathering taking place in Annapolis, Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem.
In Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamic group Hamas, crowds estimated at more than 100,000 came out to protest the Annapolis meeting.
The circumstances of the man's death in Hebron were not immediately clear, but medics said he had been shot in the chest, according to news reports. The protesters and the police were also reported to have been throwing stones at each other.