US President George W. Bush yesterday launched the biggest Middle East peace initiative of his two terms in office ahead of a conference that has raised hopes and recriminations in the Arab world.
Bush said on Sunday he was "personally committed" to resolving the decades-old Middle East conflict.
He will separately host Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the peace conference in nearby Annapolis, Maryland, which starts today and will be attended by about 40 countries including Israel's leading Arab foe Syria.
Olmert and Abbas are trying to agree on a joint statement to unblock the peace process that has been frozen since former US president Bill Clinton tried to broker a final settlement near the end of his presidency in 2000.
Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin said that Bush is throwing his full weight behind the peace efforts in order to advance his vision of a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
"President Bush has always been deeply involved in the talks. His presence at the Annapolis meeting and his two-state vision offers a strong support for our and the Palestinians' ability to mark progress in the talks," she said.
Abbas's advisor Nabil Shaath said that "this is an opportunity to return the spotlight to the Arab-Israeli question."
But major differences remain between the Israelis and Palestinians over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Criticism of the Saudi presence at the conference by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a blunt refusal by the Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip to recognize meeting's decisions have also clouded the preparations.
There have been painstaking negotiations over the joint statement outlining a solution to the conflict which the two sides wish to present at the conference.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian former prime minister Ahmed Qorei in a last-ditch bid to unblock the talks over the document.
Qorei said late on Sunday that "we are working seriously in order to reach a joint statement."
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cautioned that he would "not be surprised" if they failed to bridge their gaps before the conference starts.
Bush has worked to persuade some 50 countries and organizations -- including key Arab states -- to attend.
"I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," the president said in a statement.
In a coup for US diplomacy, a reluctant Saudi Arabia will sit at the same table with the Jewish state for the first time to discuss Middle East peacemaking.
Saudi Arabia has never recognized Israel and no senior official of the kingdom has held public talks with Israeli officials except for meetings at the UN and a 1996 international summit on fighting terrorism.
The Iranian leader telephoned King Abdullah to tell him that he wished Saudi Arabia was not taking part in the Annapolis conference, Iran's official media said.
"Arab countries should be watchful in the face of the plots and deception of the Zionist enemy," Ahmadinejad said.