Thu, Nov 29, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Bush says Middle East conference off to a positive start


US President George W. Bush told his guests at the Middle East peace conference that they were off to a strong start, with an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to restart peace talks immediately.

But Bush, making his deepest foray into Middle East peacemaking in almost seven years as president, had a bit of a rocky start himself.

Less than a minute into his opening address on Tuesday, Bush got tongue-tied and muffed the names of both the Middle East leaders standing at his sides.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert became "Ehud Ulmmm," and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas became "Ma-Mock-Mahmoud Abbas."

The two leaders had no expression as Bush stumbled, but smiled as he regained his footing and plowed on through the text of the long-sought agreement.

White House officials say the Annapolis conference was all about substance: the search for lasting peace. But symbolism matters too.

So after Bush finished reading aloud the agreement between the parties, it happened: the Handshake Moment.

First, Bush shook hands with Olmert and Abbas. Then, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders did the same with each other. It was quick and sure.

Then -- for maximum effect -- the three men went through the gestures again.

This time, the three clasped hands together, with a beaming Bush in the middle. Photographers scrambled for the shot.

Finally, Bush stepped back and Olmert and Abbas stepped forward for another handshake.

The handshakes were not the only significant gestures to come out of the summit, where body language was closely watched.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal applauded after Olmert finished his speech, according to a member of the US delegation.

That was seen as no small thing, coming from the leader of a nation considered the linchpin of Arab support for the coming talks.

Saud, a veteran of past peace efforts, said before the session that he would not shake Olmert's hand.

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