The Bush administration and its Israeli and Palestinian allies stepped gingerly toward a new round of formal Mideast peace talks Monday, expressing cautious optimism while lowering expectations for the conference.
As officials from about 40 countries convened in Washington for the meeting, arranged to provide an international blessing to the negotiations, President Bush welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to separate White House meetings.
Bush took care to point out that the U.S. role in the upcoming negotiations would be limited.
"The United States cannot impose our vision, but we can help facilitate," said the president, who began the conference by holding a dinner Monday night at the State Department.
After a seven-year hiatus since the last formal talks, Israeli and Palestinian officials hope to complete a deal in the last 14 months of Bush's presidency, using today's centerpiece gathering at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., as a starting point. They will try simultaneously to settle the day-to-day issues governing the relationship and the core disputes of the 59-year-old conflict -- the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
The world at large has welcomed the talks but has been cautious because Olmert and Abbas are weak and preside over deeply divided communities. Foreign ministers of all key Arab countries are showing support by attending, but some have expressed concern that the meeting will be more photo op than meaningful exchange.
U.S. officials promised that weeks of private negotiations between the two sides were about to yield a joint document spelling out a "work plan" for peace talks, even as they downplayed the importance of the document. As talks continued into Monday night, however, Israeli and Palestinian officials said they were uncertain that agreement would be reached in time.
Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, pledged that "there will be a document." He added that he did not consider the document as important as the fact that the meeting had brought together several Middle Eastern states and that it would open the way to formal negotiations.
Abbas and Olmert have major stakes in the conference. If it is seen as yielding nothing, Abbas' rival, the militant group Hamas, will gain stature in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians. Meanwhile, Olmert's rivals on the right contend that the prime minister plans to give away too much, a criticism that has made him cautious in the run-up to the conference.
Olmert hoped that the presence of Arab leaders at the event would be taken as a signal by Israelis that a deal could lead to a broader normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world.
The Israeli leader said before his meeting with Bush that the Annapolis conference was different from its predecessors "because we are going to have lots of participants in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians. This will be a bilateral process, but international support is very important for us."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Olmert said he expected negotiations on Palestinian statehood to begin "in a very short time" after the Annapolis conference, but gave no specific date.
"We are entering a process that has infinite bumps in the road, but we want to move forward," he said.
Olmert said he hoped to finalize an accord on those issues within a year. But he emphasized that putting one into effect -- formally creating a new state -- might take longer and would depend on the Palestinians' compliance with a 2003 U.S.-backed plan that requires certain interim steps, including action to disarm militant groups.
That puts him at odds with Abbas, who told Bush on Monday that the Palestinians want a firm commitment to conclude a peace accord within eight months and see it put into effect before Bush's term ends.
Nabil Shaath, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization central committee, said Bush, too, voiced hope that an agreement could be reached during his tenure but would not impose a deadline on the negotiators.
"He talked in very optimistic terms about the fact that the two sides are focused; he did not think there would be any attempt to waste time," Shaath said. "But we know from experience that dates are important. If you don't set a deadline, nothing gets done. It's important for somebody to push when deadlines are not respected."
In nearly two months of talks, however, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been struggling to produce a work plan for the peace negotiations.
Besides their differences over a negotiating deadline, Israel was resisting a Palestinian proposal for an American-led monitoring panel with power to enforce compliance with the Bush-backed peace plan known as the "road map." The plan requires a halt to the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a politically explosive step that Olmert has been reluctant to take.
The Palestinians objected to formal recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" because it would imply dropping their demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel, a concession they resist making before talks even start.
The two sides remained at odds when their delegations arrived in Washington over the weekend and through several meetings Sunday and Monday.
Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the talks continued after the dinner Monday.
Shaath, the Palestinian official, said he was not optimistic about reaching an agreement because "there has not been much change in the Israeli position on what they want and don't want in the document."
During his White House meeting, Abbas pressed Bush to agree to a formal U.S. role in monitoring the road map conditions and progress toward a final agreement.
Bush was "a little wary" of the idea and left it for further discussion, Shaath said.
"Bush reiterated several times that he would be engaged, that he would help," the Palestinian official added. "But he said that, in the end, the negotiations would be between us and the Israelis."
Today, Bush is to meet jointly with Abbas and Olmert in Annapolis, then give remarks opening the conference. He plans to meet with them separately at the White House on Wednesday.
Other Mideast governments were positioning themselves for the outcome of the conference.
Saudi King Abdullah and Jordanian King Abdullah II, after a Sunday meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, issued a statement asserting that any settlement should be based on an Arab peace initiative orchestrated by the Saudis in 2002 and revived this year.
One Saudi official who asked not to be named said the success of the conference depends on how much pressure the U.S. puts on Israel.
He used this analogy: "Sometimes the parent has to slap the child, but we don't know how hard Bush is going to lean on the Israelis."
The Bush administration has hoped that the peace effort will increase the isolation of Iran in the region. But Monday in Tehran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the conference as nothing more than a way to help Israel.
The U.S. and its allies "hope to help a fake and forged state called the Zionist regime," he told members of the Basiji militia gathered in Tehran. "Many countries know that the conference is doomed to failure."
Richter reported from Washington and Boudreaux from Annapolis, Md. Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Jeffrey Fleishman in the Middle East contributed to this report.