ANNAPOLIS, Maryland -- Mere minutes before President Bush delivered his speech to the Mideast peace conference here Tuesday, it appeared any hopes of getting a written agreement signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders had slipped away.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But then word leaked from an Israeli official that a "joint declaration" of some sort had been forged, and suddenly a buzz swept through the talks.
Bush announced there was indeed a "joint understanding" between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to build a path for peace by the end of 2008. To be sure, this is merely an agreement to agree -- not an actual peace deal.
But considering that until last week it was not even clear that there would be an actual peace conference, let alone a signed agreement of any kind, this was a step forward.
There is a lot of work to be done, however, before Bush can claim a major victory that reshapes the Mideast along with his own political legacy.
"The real question is will this process have legs," Aaron Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center told me shortly after Bush's speech. "Three months from now will we, in fact, be looking at a situation which has been transformed?" Watch a report on the first stab at Mideast peace in years »
The skepticism is justified because even the Israeli and Palestinian leaders acknowledged they did not address any of the divisive issues that have killed so many deals before.
Abbas spoke of his "great hope" but added that it is "accompanied with great worry that this new opportunity might be lost."
Abbas himself, for example, declared any final agreement should make East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state, a possible deal-breaker for Israel.
Olmert, meanwhile, made clear he wants his nation recognized as a Jewish state, a potential stumbling block for the Palestinians. "The time has come to end the boycott and alienation and the obliviousness toward the state of Israel," he said.
And protests all the way from the West Bank to outside the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, show it will be difficult for both sides to make the tough compromises necessary for success.
But the talks could gain strength from over 40 nations being at the table, especially Saudi Arabia and Syria. And the parties now have a U.S. president pledging full engagement -- though even Bush offered a dose of reality amid the optimism.
"America will do everything in our power to support their quest for peace, but we cannot achieve it for them," he said.
Bush will give the parties a push Wednesday when he meets at the White House with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But then it's up to Olmert and Abbas to get the job done in intense, bi-weekly meetings both now pledged to attend.
Nevertheless, the man in the Oval Office has a major stake in how those future pow-wows go. Olmert and Abbas have vowed to seal a deal by the end of 2008, right around the time Bush will be leaving the stage and finally thinking hard about his legacy. E-mail to a friend
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