WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tapped a former NATO commander on Wednesday to serve as a special envoy for Middle East security, moving quickly to maintain momentum coming out of this week's international conference that launched new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
She said James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, was "the person we need to take up this vital mission."
"I believe we need an experienced leader who can address the regional security challenges comprehensively and at the highest levels and who can provide the full support of our government to the partners as they work to meet their responsibilities," Rice said.
Earlier Wednesday — just 24 hours after securing an agreement to resume long-stalled Mideast peace talks — President Bush met again with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to ceremonially inaugurate the negotiations.
After meeting individually with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the three men appeared briefly together in the White House Rose Garden, where Bush called Tuesday's agreement "a hopeful beginning."
"One thing I have assured both gentlemen is that the United States will be actively engaged in the process," Bush said. "We will use our power to help you as you come up with the necessary decisions to lay out a Palestinian state that will live side-by-side in peace with Israel."
"No matter how important yesterday was, it's not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond," he added. "I appreciate the commitment of these leaders, working hard to achieve peace. I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible, and they wouldn't be here either if they didn't think peace was possible."
Unlike their three-way handshake on Tuesday, the leaders did not shake hands in the Rose Garden.
"I appreciate your courage and leadership," Bush said. "It's an honor to call you friends. 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."
The three then went back into the White House to formally begin the talks.
Envoy to monitor interaction between forces
Jones, standing at Rice's side for the announcement in the State Department's historic Treaty Room, said he looked forward to returning to the region as a special envoy for Middle East security.
"I look forward to doing whatever I can to assist," Jones said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said earlier that the job involves monitoring the development of Palestinian security services.
One focus would be how those forces interact with neighboring security services, including Israeli authorities. He said the special envoy would work closely with the U.S. security coordinator for the Palestinians, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who has been working in the region for two years and will remain in his post.
Jones, who ended his 40-year career in the Marines last February, will remain in his current job as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Energy. Last summer he headed a congressionally chartered panel that studied the readiness of Iraq's army and police.
U.S. officials pledged Tuesday at the international peace conference held in Annapolis, Md., to hold both sides to account if they do not carry out obligations.
The recently revived U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan quickly foundered after it was presented in 2003 because the Palestinians did not rein in militant groups and Israel did not freeze all construction in West Bank settlements, as it had pledged to do. Bringing Jones in to closely follow the process is designed to assure that the newly resumed peace talks don't languish because promises are broken.
White House expresses delight
After meeting their own low expectations for the Annapolis conference amid intense skepticism, Bush administration officials crowed with delight on Wednesday.
"What has been remarkable about this process is that they are now ready to go," Rice told ABC during a round of TV interviews Wednesday morning in which she praised unprecedented support for the peace process from Arab states.
"It's going to be hard, but you had support in that room that you had not had from Arab states in the past," Rice said on NBC.
After inaugurating the negotiations at the White House, the two sides have agreed to continue with a meeting in the region on Dec. 12, Rice said Tuesday.
Bush, along with Rice, had earlier salvaged a "joint understanding" between the Israelis and Palestinians, who had remained far apart on the details of the statement until the last minute.
'Beginning ... not the end'
But with prodding from the American side, Olmert and Abbas — troubled leaders with fragile mandates for peace — told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors they are ready for hard bargaining toward an independent Palestinian state in the 14 months Bush has left in office.
"This is the beginning of the process, not the end of it," Bush said after reading from the just-completed text the statement that took weeks to negotiate and yet sets only the vaguest terms for the talks to come.
"I pledge to devote my effort during my time as president to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal," Bush told Abbas and Olmert as the three stood together in the U.S. Naval Academy's majestic Memorial Hall. "I give you my personal commitment to support your work with the resources and resolve of the American government."
The two Mideast leaders were circumspect but optimistic.
"I had many good reasons not to come here," Olmert told diplomats, including those from Arab states that do not recognize Israel like Saudi Arabia and Syria. "Memory of failures in the near and distant past weighs heavy upon us."
Abbas, meanwhile, recited a familiar list of Palestinian demands, including calls for Israel to end the expansion of Jewish settlements on land that could be part of an eventual state called Palestine and to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
"Neither we nor you must beg for peace from the other," Abbas said. "It is a joint interest for us and you. Peace and freedom is a right for us, just as peace and security is a right for you and us."
Holding sides accountable
The United States has pledged to hold both sides to account if they do not carry out obligations under the peace talks.
Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms' length for most of his nearly seven years in office, arguing that conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories were not right for a more energetic role. Arab allies, among others, have warned that the Palestinian plight underlies other conflicts and feeds grievances across the Middle East, and have urged the White House to do more.
Bush seemed to answer the criticism Tuesday, giving detailed reasons why the time is now. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make peace, that there is a wider and unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict and that he world understands the urgency of acting now.
Later, in an interview with The Associated Press, Bush spoke of the importance of giving beleaguered Palestinians something positive to look forward to — and he sketched a grim alternative.
Without a hopeful vision, he said, "it is conceivable that we could lose an entire generation — or a lot of a generation — to radicals and extremists. There has to be something more positive. And that is on the horizon today."
Negotiating teams will hold their first session in the region in just two weeks, on Dec. 12, and Olmert and Abbas plan to continue one-on-one discussions they began earlier this year. In addition, many of the same nations and organizations attending Tuesday's conference will gather again on Dec. 17 in Paris to raise money for the perpetually cash-strapped Palestinians.
Israel faces other disputes
To attract Arab backing, the Bush administration included a session in the conference devoted to "comprehensive" peace questions — a coded reference to other Arab disputes with Israel.
Syria came to the conference intending to raise its claim to the strategic Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, and Lebanon wanted to talk about its border dispute with Israel. Rice told reporters that Syria and Lebanon spoke up, but she gave no details.
But in a sign of the difficult road ahead, Abbas' speech was immediately rejected by Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that stormed to power in the Gaza Strip in June, a month before Bush announced plans for the peace conference.
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