The US will try to close an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before US President George W. Bush's term expires, giving the administration a little over a year to help the two sides craft a resolution to one of the world's longest and most intractable conflicts.
But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Wednesday that the task will be difficult and fraught with entrenched positions on both sides that have led to the failure of all previous attempts.
"The parties have said they are going to make efforts to conclude it in this president's term, and it's no secret that means about a year," Rice said. "That's what we'll try and do. Nobody can guarantee that -- all you can do is make your best effort."
Speaking a day after the administration issued invitations for next week's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, Rice argued the meeting could already be considered a success because Israeli and Palestinian leaders will agree to launch peace talks with an eye toward completing them and creating a Palestinian state by January 2009.
Talks that she said she hopes will be continuous and serious would start immediately. It would be the first such direct negotiations between the two sides in seven years.
"The success of this meeting is really in the launch of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the establishment of a Palestinian state," she told reporters.
The US is hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders from Monday to Wednesday for talks in Washington and Annapolis at which senior officials and diplomats from 46 other nations and groups are expected to attend and endorse the resumption of direct negotiations.
"The parties will go out of here ready to take this on," Rice said. "Now, it's going to be a complex agreement, there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved. But I am prepared, the president's prepared and I know members of the international community ... are prepared to help them along that path."
The Bush administration believes the Annapolis session will be an important launchpad for talks to settle the conflict over land, nationhood and rights that underlies Israel's other problems with Arab neighbors.
Rice said the US will give room for those other conflicts to be aired at Annapolis, including Syria's dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights.
"If Syria chooses to come and wants to speak to its issues ... certainly nobody is going to rule it out of order," she said.
Rice could not say exactly which of the invitees would attend or at what level, and the guest list is not expected to be finalized until this weekend.
Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday to discuss the conference, and also phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the session, the White House said.
Egypt has pledged to attend the session.
The invitations to the three-day session went out Tuesday after months of intense diplomacy. The administration has announced few details beyond the dates and a cursory schedule.
The two sides are expected to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks at Annapolis, yet less than a week before their delegations are to arrive in the US, the document exists only in vague form.