Washington The Bush administration said Tuesday it will inaugurate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians next week, ending a seven-year lull, with a conference of leaders and diplomats the U.S. hopes will help shepherd a final Mideast settlement.
Organizers said the meeting will take place Monday through Wednesday in Washington and at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but revealed few other details, saying it was too soon say which of the 49 invited nations and organizations would attend.
The event is meant to commit Israel and the Palestinians to formal peace talks that carry international backing.
President Bush will deliver a speech at the naval academy Tuesday to open a one-day session there with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Bush's role is larger than U.S. officials had earlier indicated, including meetings at the White House with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
He also will address conference participants at a dinner Monday night at the State Department. After the session in Annapolis, talks return to Washington next Wednesday.
"This conference will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Tuesday night.
Olmert said Tuesday he hopes a peace deal could be completed by the end of next year.
With less than a week to go, organizers would not definitively promise that the session would confront the issues that have shipwrecked past peace efforts - the final borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left homes in present-day Israel.
"There is a common understanding that this is the moment in which they can change the picture and get serious negotiations started," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said. New talks to set up an independent Palestinian state would begin immediately, U.S. diplomats said, but they gave no details. The Annapolis conference and the new phase of Mideast peace it opens must overcome obstacles including political division and weakness in Israel and among the Palestinians.
Welch wouldn't elaborate on invitations to two Arab powerbrokers - Saudi Arabia and Syria - whose participation is seen as crucial. Neither recognizes Israel.
Earlier Tuesday, Bush began reaching out to key nations that could be spoilers for the U.S.-sponsored conference.
Bush discussed the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call and called Saudi King Abdullah. It was not disclosed if the Russian and Saudi leaders said whether their nations would attend.
In Egypt, Olmert appealed to reluctant Arab nations to support the upcoming conference. He promised that negotiations would address all issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and take into account a Saudi-sponsored Arab peace initiative - two key concerns of Arab states.
Olmert's comments were aimed at assuring Arab nations that even if the conference glosses over the hardest issues, the ensuing negotiations will not. It is not clear where or when those later bargaining sessions will occur. A first step is likely to be a pledging session for the Palestinians scheduled for Dec. 17 in Paris.