US President George W. Bush was scheduled to host Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a White House summit yesterday, one day after a 44-nation conference where the two Middle East leaders pledged to try to forge a peace treaty by the end of this year that would create a Palestinian state.
Bush will use the White House meeting to formally jumpstart negotiations between the two sides.
His aim is to achieve in his final 14 months in office what has eluded previous US administrations for decades.
"This work will be hard. It involves risks and sacrifices," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged at the end of the one-day Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, on Tuesday.
Moscow will host the next Middle East peace conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies yesterday.
"We have yet to agree on the timing and agenda of this meeting," Lavrov told reporters on board a plane on his way home from the Annapolis conference.
Bush opened Tuesday's conference at the US Naval Academy by reading a joint statement painstakingly negotiated by the two sides but that skirted the core issues that divide them.
Bush lauded Olmert and Abbas for agreeing to "good faith, bilateral negotiations," and Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to send negotiating teams to a new session in Jerusalem on Dec. 12.
Standing before delegations that included some of their skeptical Arab neighbors, Olmert and Abbas sealed their pledge with an awkward handshake as Bush looked on, smiling stiffly.
The Annapolis accord emerged from last-minute talks on a joint document meant to chart the course for negotiating the toughest "final status" issues of the conflict -- Jerusalem, borders, security and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
"No one believes that failure is an option," Rice said.
Both sides agreed to give a US general the power to judge whether Israel was freezing settlement activity and whether Palestinians were reining in militants as demanded by a long-dormant US-backed "road map" peace plan.
But beyond accepting a framework for peace talks, neither Olmert nor Abbas gave any sign of ceding ground on their main differences when they addressed the conference.
And Olmert later hinted the timetable may not be as firm as Bush might hope.
Asked if the sides could clinch a deal in only a year, Olmert told the PBS TV program NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: "I don't know. I said I will make every possible effort."
In related developments yesterday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Israel would not survive, as he lashed out at the Annapolis conference.
"It is impossible that the Zionist regime can last," state media quoted Ahmadinejad as saying in a Cabinet meeting.
"Deterioration is in the nature of this regime as it has been built on aggression, lying, crime and wrongdoing," he said.