(CNSNews.com) - President Bush opened the Annapolis peace conference on Tuesday, hailing the "historic opportunity to encourage the expansion of freedom and peace in the Holy Land."
Of key interest to the Israelis, President Bush at one point mentioned that a negotiated settlement "will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."
Israel, much to the Palestinians' dismay, has insisted on recognition as a Jewish state, something that would preclude the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 during Israel's creation - or who fled during the 1967 war.
President Bush called for an end to violence that has plagued both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"We're off to a strong start," President Bush said, as he read a joint statement in which the two sides expressed their determination to:
-- bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict;
-- usher in a new era of peace...and mutual recognition.
-- propagate a culture of peace...to confront terrorism and incitement...
To further the two-state goal, the two sides agreed to "immediately launch good-faith, bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements."
They also agree to engage in "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" and make "every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.
President Bush said steering committees will do much of the behind-the-scenes work, and the Israeli and Palestinians leaders will meet biweekly for "follow-up" negotiations.
And finally, the parties agreed to implement their road map obligations.
The point of the Annapolis conference isn't to conclude a peace agreement but to "launch negotiations," President Bush said. He said the United States will fully support the process.
Responding to criticism about the timing of the Annapolis conference, President Bush said now is the right time to begin the process -- because the Israelis and Palestinians have leaders who are determined to achieve peace.
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