RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday that all sides want to reach a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians before President Bush leaves office, and Bush's top diplomat welcomed what could be the start of the first serious bargaining in seven years.
Abbas said he has received "encouraging signs" from Israel and the United States, which would act as a broker for any comprehensive settlement of the six-decade-old conflict. A settlement is a top priority for the Bush administration for the remaining 14 months of Bush's term.
"I agree with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that there is a real possibility to achieve peace, and I want to reiterate that we are serious about using this opportunity to reach this historical peace," Abbas said following a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"I'm quite confident that the will is there on both sides that people want to end this conflict," an upbeat Rice said. Israel and the Palestinians were "moving toward an understanding" that a U.S.-sponsored conference can be a forum to restart long-stalled peace talks, she said.
Rice also met Monday with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinians' chief negotiator working with Israel to draft a blueprint for future peace talks. Neither side announced any progress in writing the draft since Rice's last visit to the region three weeks ago, and Rice had said she did not expect to win its completion on this trip.
The document is supposed to be the centerpiece of a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference to be held in Annapolis, Md., before the end of the year. President Bush intends the meeting to be a springboard for relaunching formal peace negotiations, which broke down amid violence seven years ago.
The Palestinians want the outline to mention the principles for solving each of the key disputes, such as agreement to divide disputed Jerusalem without deciding now on the details. Israel has been cool to addressing this and other key issues like final borders and a solution for Palestinian refugees from the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
The Palestinians also insist on setting a deadline for peace talks, saying that after more than a decade of failed peacemaking they need to know when the process will end. Israel rejects firm deadlines, which have been set and ignored in the past.
The participation of regional powerhouses like Saudi Arabia that don't have diplomatic ties with Israel is considered vital to the conference's success. But they have been reluctant to endorse the meeting until they have a clear sign that major issues that have derailed talks in the past will be addressed seriously there.
On Monday, Rice said Arab states were giving "very clear signs" they want the Annapolis conference to succeed.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had said Sunday vigorous peace negotiations could go far toward establishing an independent Palestinian state before Bush leaves office.
"If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments" in the little more than a year Bush has left, Olmert told a gathering of scholars, leaders and former peace negotiators.
He pledged continuous negotiations following the Annapolis conference, which both Abbas and Rice agreed Monday would be the goal.
"There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly," Olmert said. "There is no reason to suffer the same foot-dragging which previously characterized our discussions," Olmert said.
Olmert's government may have reason to want to secure the best deal it can now under U.S. auspices, for fear a Democrat less friendly to Israel's security interests might be the next U.S. president.
Earlier Monday, a Palestinian negotiator said Rice should hand timetables to Israel and the Palestinians for meeting previously agreed short-term peace obligations, such as an Israeli settlement freeze and a Palestinian arms roundup, to boost trust ahead of a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference.
"It seems that the Israelis haven't read their obligations," said the negotiator, Saeb Erekat.
Israelis say Palestinians have not met their obligations either, including reducing violence.
Israel and the United States are bargaining only with Abbas and other moderates based in the West Bank, freezing out Islamic Hamas militants who violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terror group and refuse all dealings with it.
The seaside Gaza Strip is the smaller of two Palestinian territories that together would make up an eventual Palestinian state. But the U.S. and Israeli focus now is on making the West Bank a working model of what that state could look like.
Rice had said beforehand that she would ask Abbas about a recent meeting he held with Hamas officials. Rice told reporters Sunday that she was not concerned about the meeting and takes Abbas at his word that he will not negotiate with the militants.