President Bush told the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories on Wednesday he is personally committed to their mission of peace, urging them to stick with it and not lose sight of their goal.
Bush met separately with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House, and then with the two men jointly before the trio emerged for a presidential send-off from the Rose Garden. The stagecraft capped three days of U.S.-sponsored diplomacy centered on an international Mideast peace conference held Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.
"No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond," Bush said, with Olmert on one side and Abbas on the other.
"I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible," the president said.
The Bush administration pronounced itself pleased with the outcome of the conference. It drew 44 nations, including Israel's neighboring Arab states whose support is considered vital to any peace agreement. A joint understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians, in doubt until the last minute, was salvaged. And Abbas and Olmert reiterated their desire to reach a peace settlement by the end of next year.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Wednesday confirmed that Russia has offered to host a follow-up conference, but he said no agreement had been reached. He called the Russian offer generous and said the United States would discuss how to follow up on the Annapolis conference in coming weeks.
Abbas, speaking with reporters after the White House send-off, said Bush seemed determined to reach a peace treaty during his term.
"We found him zealous in that direction," he said.
Abbas also said that while the agreement to resume talks was only the beginning of the process, the Palestinians "achieved what we came here for. We came here to start negotiations and we got that."
Abbas was asked whether he found Israel to be a serious peace partner. He laughed and said: "I am not going to judge their intentions. We say that we have a partner and we are ready to work with this partner to reach this treaty."
Olmert, for his part, reiterated at a briefing with Israeli reporters that a peace deal could not be implemented until the violence against Israel from Gaza stops. A deal, he said, won't be implemented until conditions crucial to Israel are met.
Underscoring the importance of security, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tapped James L. Jones, a retired Marine Corps general and a former NATO commander, to serve as a special envoy for Middle East security, moving quickly to maintain momentum coming out of Annapolis.
The job involves monitoring the development of Palestinian security services, McCormack said. One focus would be how those forces interact with neighboring security services, including Israeli authorities.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush wanted to meet with the leaders one last time Wednesday to encourage them to "go forth and work to make the peace" and to make clear he would be available to help.
Bush also met briefly on Wednesday with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now the Mideast envoy for the so-called Quartet of Mideast negotiators, the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Bush asked Abbas for the reaction from the region. But Perino said that neither Iran, which called the conference a failure, nor the demonstrations against the talks by tens of thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza, came up.
In a speech Wednesday evening at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley emphasized U.S. efforts to isolate Hamas, the Islamic militant faction that took power in the Gaza Strip in June. That election effectively split Palestinians between rule by Hamas in the tiny coastal territory and by Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank.
"We are looking for a two-state solution, not a three-state solution," Hadley said, adding that the parties are Israel and the West Bank, not Israel, West Bank and Gaza. If a Palestinian state is achieved, "the Palestinians in Gaza are going to have to make a choice," he said.