US President George W. Bush was to open a high-stakes Israeli-Palestinian peace conference yesterday, trying to achieve in his final 14 months in office a goal that has eluded US leaders for decades.
Finally embracing a hands-on approach he disdained after his predecessor Bill Clinton failed to broker a deal in the twilight of his presidency, Bush is hosting the most ambitious round of international Middle East diplomacy in seven years.
The talks are aimed at jump-starting negotiations for creating a Palestinian state. But no one expects a swift breakthrough between the two sides, led by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas Islamists who oppose the meeting, tens of thousands joined an anti-Annapolis rally chanting "Abbas is a traitor" and "Death to Israel, death to America."
Security forces in Ramallah, Abbas's West Bank stronghold, dispersed crowds after scuffles at a protest.
Hoping to salvage a foreign policy legacy likely to be dominated by the unpopular Iraq War, Bush will address the one-day conference in Annapolis, Maryland, attended by more than 40 states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and other Arab powers.
Like the US, many participants are driven by the desire to offset the growing influence of non-Arab Iran -- an opponent of peace with the Jewish state. Tehran said yesterday that it had built a new long-range missile. The weapon matches the range of another Iranian missile that can hit Israel.
Bush's speech at the US Naval Academy, sandwiched between his talks with Olmert and Abbas, will be the centerpiece of his most direct role in Middle East peacemaking efforts.
"We've come together this week because we share a common goal -- two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush said at a dinner for participants on the eve of the conference.
"Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises," he said.
A Palestinian official said Abbas would probably stress the conference was a unique opportunity for a comprehensive peace, which he hoped could be achieved before Bush leaves office.
Joining the talks are Syria and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Their presence is considered a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will shepherd the conference.
"We participate with the understanding that the Golan [Heights] will be discussed," Syrian diplomat Ahmad Salkini said.
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