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Bush's Mideast legacy on the line at peace conference

  • Story Highlights
  • More than 40 countries to be represented at Tuesday's Annapolis conference
  • Administration hopes summit will help to establish a broader Arab-Israel peace
  • Also hopes summit will initiate status talks between Israelis, Palestinians
  • Bush was first U.S. president to publicly call for a Palestinian state in 2002
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By Ed Henry
CNN Washington Bureau
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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (CNN) -- The stakes for President Bush in the Middle East peace process have never been higher.

President Bush restates his personal vow to peace in the Mideast in his toast on the eve of the summit.

That probably says less about the actual process and more about the fact the president has never been that much involved -- at least not until Tuesday's conference he's hosting with more than 40 nations from around the world.

Bush, who started his presidency deeply skeptical of getting too heavily engaged in the peace process, has a motive to get his hands dirty these days -- his legacy on the Mideast is under fire because of the war in Iraq.

Helping to broker a major peace deal in his final year could turn his fortunes in the history books, so now he's putting his weight behind the effort in a major way.

"Tonight I restate my personal commitment on behalf of the United States to all those in the Middle East who wish to live in freedom and peace," Bush said in a toast Monday night at a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "We stand with you at the Annapolis conference and beyond."

That will be the key: Will Bush, as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials, follow up with the same vigor they're showing now to actually implement any possible agreement that emerges from these talks at the U.S. Naval Academy?

Summit goals

Bush administration hopes conference will:

  • Trigger final status talks between Israelis, Palestinians

  • Encourage Israel, Palestinians to honor "road map" agreements

  • Help to strengthen Palestinian government infrastructure

  • Help to establish a broader Arab-Israel peace
  • All sides are saying the right things, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert correctly declaring the White House's ability to get more than 40 nations to the table could give these talks a huge shot in the arm.

    "This time it's different because we are going to have lots of participants in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said.

    Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lauded the U.S. president.

    "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations, expand negotiations over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people an agreement to security and stability," Abbas said.

    Bush's direct participation also could help. It's a dramatic change for a president who came to office believing former President Bill Clinton set the process back by pushing too hard for peace at Camp David in the waning days of his presidency. Back in February 2002, then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer charged that Clinton tried to "shoot the moon" and came up with nothing.

    "President Bush is intent to learn the lessons of all previous presidents and focus on what he thinks can be successful, which is an incremental approach .... and not an attempt to have an immediate comprehensive solution, because he thinks that will raise expectations too high," Fleischer had said.

    Bush now is raising expectations himself. Hope springs eternal for a peace deal after so many stops and starts in Democratic and Republican administrations.


    And White House officials claim that Bush was the first U.S. president to publicly call for a Palestinian state in 2002. They say Bush could not work with Yasser Arafat, but now he sees an opportunity for peace and is seizing it.

    If nothing emerges from these talks, however, critics will likely be wondering about the missed opportunities -- if only the U.S. president had gotten more engaged in the process much sooner. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

    All About George W. BushCondoleezza RiceEhud OlmertMahmoud Abbas

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