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Retired U.S. general to tackle Israeli-Palestinian security issues

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  • NEW: Retired Gen. James Jones appointed special envoy for Mideast security
  • Bush praises Israeli, Palestinian leaders as Mideast summit ends
  • Representatives of both sides say a peace deal is possible by 2009
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Calling this "a time of renewed hope," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday a former NATO commander will step into a new role as U.S. special envoy for Mideast security.

The announcement comes in the wake of the Mideast summit in Annapolis, Maryland, where Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to work towards a Palestinian state over the next year.

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Leaders Ehud Olmert, George W. Bush, and Mahmoud Abbas, from left, walk at the White House on Wednesday.

Retired Marine Gen. James Jones "will work with Israelis and Palestinians on the full range of security issues," advising Rice and the president as the White House seeks to play an active role in advancing the peace process in the region, Rice said at the State Department.

"I will look to him for candid, independent advice and assessment of our efforts," Rice said.

Jones will focus on security issues that come into play during the negotiations, Rice said. "Building security in the Middle East is the surest path for making peace in the Middle East," she said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the new role would help sort out how the developing Palestinian security services would work with Israeli forces and security of other neighbors.

President Bush on Wednesday told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he would personally "facilitate" peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, saying the formation of a democratic Palestinian state was the best way to end Mideast violence. Video Watch Blitzer's one-on-one with Bush »

Earlier Wednesday, Bush called the Annapolis summit a "hopeful beginning," but added, "no matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond."

"It's very important for the international community to support these two leaders during the bilateral negotiations that will take place," he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who stood beside him in the White House Rose Garden.

Bush said he promised both leaders that the United States would be "actively engaged" in the peace process.

"It's an honor to call you friends," he told Abbas and Olmert. "And it's an honor to have watched you yesterday as you laid out your respective visions for something we all want, which is peace in the Holy Land."

Olmert and Abbas met Wednesday with Bush in the Oval Office, a day after Bush announced at the peace summit that the two sides had agreed on a framework for peace talks.

Palestinian and Israeli leaders were optimistic they can seal a long-elusive peace agreement by 2009, but said Wednesday that any deal needs to be a package crafted through tradeoffs and concessions.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the two sides can "absolutely" fashion a peace deal by the end of next year.

However, he said, the deal must come in a package that resolves at least six points: Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel; Jerusalem as the shared capital of a future Palestinian state; borders, security and water supply.

"I think the best course of action is to go the package deal because we know it's do-able," Erakat said. "I think the world said to us yesterday and to Israel, 'We stand shoulder to shoulder with you if you deliver.' " See who attended the summit and what they want »

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev agreed with Erakat that a package deal is necessary, but refrained from discussing specifics, saying only that Israel is willing to discuss all "sensitive and problematic issues." He added there "are different ideas out there."

Regev also said Israel is more optimistic about this round of negotiations than those in the past because of international support for the talks and the trust between Olmert and Abbas.

In the past, the United States and Europe have lent support, Regev said, but this time, "We had yesterday significant leaders from across the Middle East, countries that don't normally talk to Israelis, and everyone was united, saying peace, two states, Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side."

There are many hurdles, however, Regev said. Iran, Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants and Gaza-based Hamas militants would like to "torpedo" the peace process. Israeli security forces were on high alert Wednesday in anticipation of attacks, he said.

Tuesday's summit was held at the U.S. Naval Academy with representatives attending from dozens of nations, many of them Arab.

Olmert and Abbas announced they will "immediately launch" talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel and they hope to conclude talks by 2009, Bush said.

Some of the contentious issues are addressed in the "road map" to peace established in 2003 by the Mideast Quartet, composed of the U.S., United Nations, Russia and the European Union. Bush said Tuesday that Abbas and Olmert have agreed "to immediately implement their respective obligations" under the "road map."

The United States will monitor and judge whether Israel and the Palestinians fulfill their commitment, which Erakat said Tuesday was a "good development" in the deal. Video Watch the reaction in the Mideast »

Palestinian and Israeli leaders will form steering committees that will begin meeting December 12, and Olmert and Abbas agreed to meet every two weeks afterward to follow up on negotiations and offer assistance.

A Syrian official told CNN on Wednesday that Russia is planning to host an Annapolis-style Mideast peace conference in its capital, Moscow, in the coming months.

In his speech on Tuesday, Abbas said he will not back down on his demand that East Jerusalem be named the capital of any future Palestinian state. Nor will he relent on his calls for Israel to dismantle its outposts in the West Bank, he said.

"I must defend the right of our people to see a new dawn," Abbas said, calling also for the release of Palestinian prisoners, the lifting of roadblocks and the removal of what he called the "separation wall" that surrounds the West Bank.

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Olmert said Tuesday that Israel was "prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realize these aspirations" of peace.

"While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable," Olmert said. "I know it. Many of my people know it. We are ready for it." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Elise Labott and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

All About Middle East ConflictEhud OlmertMahmoud Abbas

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