Arabs and Israelis sat down formally together for the second time in history.
Saying "now is precisely the right time to launch" negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, President Bush told the Annapolis peace conference Tuesday that the choice now is stark: between peace based on two democratic states, and extremism and violence.
Mr. Bush was host to only the second occasion in history where Arabs and Israelis have formally sat together to discuss Middle East peace. He said peace can be achieved only if all the interested parties – the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Arab states and the international community – play their part.
But Bush emphasized that a successful peace accord would depend on whether the two main parties – Israel and a yet-to-be-created Palestine – are determined to get there. "The United States is proud to host this meeting," Bush said, "but in the end, [success] depends on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. We cannot achieve [peace] for them."
Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Bush read what he called an "agreed statement" of "joint understanding" that laid out obligations for both sides. Seeking to build a certain momentum, Bush announced that the two sides would begin regular bilateral negotiations on Dec. 12. He said they would try to reach an accord by the end of next year.
Playing down any direct role for the US or any other outside party, Bush spoke of a "support role" for such parties. That tone suggests Annapolis could be the high-water mark for the president's involvement in the peace process if the Israelis and Palestinians are unable to push forward on their own.
It may or may not be an irony of history that the first meeting drawing Arabs and Israelis to the same table was the Madrid conference in 1991 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.