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Restrained Optimism For Mideast Peace Talks

But Saudi Arabia's Saud said efforts by the administration to ratchet down hopes did not reflect the views of many participants. "The expectations are high regardless of what is said, and I hope that everybody who comes to the conference will be aware of the high expectation and will act accordingly," he said.

Some Middle East experts, moreover, said Olmert and Abbas may need more than Bush administration rhetoric to reach a final settlement. The track record of accomplishment in past meetings between the two is meager, they said, even though the relationship has warmed and they are said to have begun discussing some of the most vexing issues in settling the conflict.

Olmert is a deeply unpopular prime minister and Abbas has had control -- barely -- of only half of the Palestinian territories since the militant group Hamas seized Gaza in June. Yet they will be called upon to make difficult compromises -- and then sell those compromises to their skeptical publics.

Abbas "is trying to negotiate the future of the Palestinian people while he is literally at war with at least half of the Palestinian people," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Rice pushed Olmert and Abbas together during a February meeting in Jerusalem. The atmosphere was tense, largely because Abbas had just agreed to create a unity government with Hamas. "It was very uncomfortable," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. "She was just relieved it came off."

The atmosphere improved when the unity deal fell apart and Hamas took over Gaza. Suddenly a militant group was no longer in charge of the government on the West Bank, freeing Olmert to increase contacts and let tax revenue flow back to the Palestinians. The leaders began meeting more frequently; Olmert even traveled to the Palestinian territories to see Abbas and became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the occupied West Bank city of Jericho.

Initially, driven in part by Rice's demand, the men talked mostly about ways to improve Palestinian life in the West Bank.

Olmert eventually agreed to release more than 300 Palestinian prisoners, almost all of them from Abbas's Fatah Party, although that is a tiny fraction of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Abbas wanted set free many more prisoners, who hold a special place in Palestinian society as symbols of sacrifice. While Olmert agreed to remove about two dozen roadblocks in the West Bank, about 500 military checkpoints and other obstacles remain, choking the economy in the territories.

On Aug. 28, the two men for the first time touched on core issues -- the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to the Jewish state. But Palestinian and Israeli officials said Olmert and Abbas have not come close to resolving any of them.

Diana Butto, a former top Abbas aide, said that talks fill a need for Abbas but are unlikely to ever yield much. "He wants a peace process, but he does not care about the details or the substance so much," she said. "I don't think he has a strategy for liberating the country."

Olmert has long said he would allow some outlying Arab-majority neighborhoods of Jerusalem to be part of a Palestinian state, largely to strengthen the Jewish majority in Israel. But no specific proposals on Jerusalem, such as those that the sides tentatively agreed to in the last formal Israeli-Palestinian talks, emerged from their meetings.

Olmert has never wavered from rejecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. He has said the future Palestinian state is the natural home for the refugees, and his negotiating team demanded in pre-conference talks that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Some Jewish and evangelical Christian groups have expressed concern that Bush is pressuring Israel to make unwise concessions, but Hadley reassured some of them yesterday in a private meeting at the White House. "He was very strong on the point that what the administration is doing is supporting a decision that Prime Minister Olmert of Israel has made" in pursuing a peace deal, said Nathan J. Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Staff writer Robin Wright and correspondent Scott Wilson contributed to this report. Wilson reported from Jerusalem.

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