US President George W. Bush assured Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday the US would actively engage in peacemaking, despite deep skepticism over chances for a deal before he leaves office.
Just 24 hours after pledging in Annapolis, Maryland, to try to forge a treaty by the end of next year, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Bush for the ceremonial resumption of the first formal peace talks in seven years.
The White House meeting capped a three-day diplomatic flurry, including a 44-nation Middle East conference, that underscored Bush's aim to achieve in his final 14 months in office what has eluded US leaders for decades.
Once wary of taking a hands-on role in peacemaking, Bush promised to put US power to work for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe peace was possible," Bush said.
Shoulder to shoulder with the two leaders in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said: "One thing I've assured both gentlemen is that the United States will be actively engaged in the process."
But Bush would neither force a solution on Israelis and Palestinians nor impose a US peace plan, his national security adviser Stephen Hadley said, adding the president "has made clear he is only a phone call away."
Trying to reinforce the seriousness of the US commitment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Marine General James Jones, who was NATO commander in Europe until last year, to be her special envoy for Middle East security.
But there was no sign Bush was planning the kind of sustained personal engagement he had shunned after his predecessor, Bill Clinton, failed to broker a peace accord in 2000 in the twilight of his presidency.
Bush brushed aside a question in a CNN interview about whether he was prepared to go to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace.
"Going to a region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations. It is working with the principals -- Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas. That's how you get things done. Now if I have to call them together, I will," Bush said.
The two sides will meet on Dec. 12 in Jerusalem but serious questions remain about the viability of the renewed effort.
All three leaders -- Bush, Abbas and Olmert -- are politically weak at home, raising doubts whether they can make good on their promises and lingering mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians will make any progress difficult.
In a sign of the obstacles ahead, two Israeli airstrikes killed four Hamas militants on Wednesday night near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, Palestinian security officials said early yesterday morning.
The Israeli military said the first attack was on a group of armed men in combat vests moving near the border with Israel and the second was against two men trying to plant a bomb near the border fence.
On Wednesday an Israeli air strike on a Hamas base killed two militants after Palestinians fired 20 mortar shells and two rockets into Israel, Palestinian medics and the Israeli military said.