US President George W. Bush will host a key conference next Tuesday aiming to revive the Middle East peace process and pave the way towards a separate Palestinian state, US officials said.
Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will open the conference involving more than 40 countries from around the world next week in Annapolis, Maryland, US State Department officials said.
"We feel this is a really important moment," US Middle East envoy David Welch said on Tuesday. "There is a common understanding that this is the moment in which they can change the picture and get serious negotiations started."
The peace process has been frozen for seven years since former US president Bill Clinton tried to broker a final settlement near the end of his presidency in 2000.
In launching a new push for Palestinian-Israeli peace, the US is hoping to enlist the support of moderate Arab states that are also concerned about the rising power of Iran following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
On the sidelines of the conference, Bush will host bilateral talks on Monday and Wednesday at the White House with both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.
Washington issued invitations on Tuesday to around 100 delegates from the Middle East, as well as Europe and Asia, including Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Saudi Arabia, a key US ally that sponsored a 2002 Arab peace initiative now attracting Israeli attention, has also been invited but no official replies to the invitations have yet been received, the State Department said.
In his letter of invitation to Abbas, Bush made clear that the Annapolis meeting was intended to pave the way for comprehensive negotiations between the two sides, a senior Palestinian official said.
"This conference will signal broad international support for your courageous efforts and will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace, in accordance with the roadmap," the official quoted Bush as saying.
The last was a reference to an internationally drafted peace blueprint that has made next to no progress since its launch in 2003.
The two sides are expected to kick off negotiations on the thorniest issues of their decades-old conflict after the Annapolis meeting.
Olmert said after last-minute talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt on Tuesday that he hoped to reach a final peace deal with the Palestinians next year.
Israel is moving forward with gestures of goodwill. Its prison authority released a list of 431 prisoners the government plans to release before the conference.
Olmert also gave the green light for the Palestinians to receive dozens of Russian-made armored vehicles.