By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007 5:30 PM
President Bush pledged today to remain "actively engaged" in a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process and called for international support for the two sides' leaders as they pursue the difficult negotiations.
In a brief statement after meeting privately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush stood between the two men in the White House Rose Garden and declared: "I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible, and they wouldn't be here either if they didn't think peace was possible."
Bush held lengthy separate talks this morning and early afternoon with Abbas and Olmert in the Oval Office, then met with both men in a final session. All the meetings were closed to the news media.
The talks came a day after the Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to resume negotiations next month on a peace deal, with the aim of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration read by Bush at the opening of a one-day conference yesterday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis said the two sides would "engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" starting Dec. 12, when a steering committee in charge of the talks is scheduled to convene. Abbas and Olmert "will continue to meet on a biweekly basis to follow up the negotiations," the joint statement said.
But the two leaders' speeches at the conference of more than 40 nations underscored the difficult compromises that will be needed to overcome bitter grievances that divide the two sides.
In a related development, the State Department today announced the appointment of retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO commander, to a new position advising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on security issues connected to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
"In this new role, General Jones will advance our objective of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Rice said. "He will design and implement a new U.S. government plan for our security assistance to the Palestinian Authority and our security cooperation with the Israeli and Palestinian governments."
Jones will work with Army Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, "who will continue his mission of helping the Palestinian Authority to build and rationalize its security forces," Rice said. Dayton holds the title of U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Jones's new post would involve monitoring the development of Palestinian security services and facilitating their interaction with Israeli authorities.
Jones, 63, served as Marine Corps commandant before becoming NATO's supreme allied commander, a post he held from 2003 to 2006. He retired from the Marine Corps in February after 40 years of service.
After his meetings today with Olmert and Abbas, Bush said it is "very important for the international community to support these two leaders during the bilateral negotiations that will take place."
He said he assured both that "the United States will be actively engaged in the process, that we will use our power to help you as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side by side in peace with Israel."
Bush called his series of meetings "successful" but did not get into specifics of what was discussed.
"Yesterday was an important day, and it was a hopeful beginning," he said. "No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond."
After delivering his brief statement, Bush escorted Abbas and Olmert back into the White House without taking questions from reporters.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said earlier that Bush was advising the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to "keep your eye on the big picture" in negotiating the "difficult, emotional issues" that divide the two sides.
"It's going to be time-consuming as they work through them, and there could be sticking points," Perino told reporters. "And what the president encouraged them to do was to work with their negotiators; that there would be days when it looks like things were really tough, but that if you keep your eye on the big picture, that you can help make sure that you'll have a successful negotiation."
Perino said that in his meeting with Abbas, Bush asked about reaction in the Middle East to yesterday's joint declaration.
"And President Abbas said that he believed, and the president agrees, that people are ready for peace and that it was received favorably, but they know that they have a lot of work to do," she said. "There's apprehension, there's caution."
Perino said Bush and Abbas also discussed the role of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and rejects peace talks with Israel. She declined to provide details of the discussion.
In addition to opposition from Hamas, the peace talks also face resistance from Israeli settlers and rightist supporters who want to retain Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Bush "is not going to do the negotiating for the Israelis and the Palestinians," Perino told a White House news briefing. "He has said that Americans can be helpful; he will be there; he's only a phone call away. But they're going to have to do the hard work of talking to one another."
The Hamas issue is one that Abbas "is going to have to deal with," Perino said.
In an interview this afternoon with CNN, Bush dismissed the idea of traveling to the Middle East personally to mediate if the negotiations bog down.
"When they're stuck, we'll help them get unstuck," Bush told interviewer Wolf Blitzer. "Going to a region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations." Referring to Olmert and Abbas, he added, "If I have to call them together, I will." But he said the notion that he had to travel to the area "is just not realistic."
Bush said Iran was not invited to the Annapolis conference because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "not constructive" and would not have come anyway. He said the Iranian leader proved this point by declaring today that Israel will not survive and that participants in the Annapolis gathering were mistaken if they thought it would achieve anything.
Asked if the United States would respond militarily if Iran attacked Israel, Bush said, "Absolutely. We will support our ally Israel if attacked by Iran."