Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, US President George W.
Bush read out a joint statement agreed just moments before the meeting began in Annapolis, Maryland.
“We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008,” the statement said.
Mr Abbas said the conference and international climate presented an exceptional opportunity for peace that would “not repeat itself,” while Mr Olmert vowed Israel was prepared to make a “painful compromise” to achieve peace.
Launching the biggest initiative of his presidency to revive the Middle East peace process, Mr Bush, who is nearing the end of his eight-year term, said the time was now ripe for an end to the six-decade conflict.
“In light of recent developments, some have suggested that now is not the right time to pursue peace. I disagree,” Bush told delegates from more than 50 countries and organizations.
“I believe that now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations — for a number of reasons,” he insisted, citing a new willingness among the leaders of both sides, and global support for fresh negotiations.
Also he added “the time is right because a battle is underway for the future of the Middle East — and we must not cede victory to the extremists.”
The dramatic statement marked a significant victory for President Bush, as right up until the last minute the two delegations had been haggling over the text.
“We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples,” it said.
And they promised to “usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and non-violence; to confront terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis.”
The first meeting of a top-level steering committee is to be held on
December 12, and the two sides agreed “to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements.”
Major differences remain between the Israelis and Palestinians over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
But Mr Olmert seized the opportunity to call for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal.
“I am pleased to see here in this hall representatives of Arab countries. Most of them do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The time has come for you as well,” he said.
Arab peace initiative
In another major coup, the US administration had coaxed Saudi Arabia into attending the conference, which marks the first time that Riyadh has sat with Israel to discuss peace.
Saudi Arabia is the architect of an Arab peace initiative offering formal Arab diplomatic ties with Israel in return for an Israeli pullout from all land occupied in the 1967 war.
In launching a new push for peace, the United States has pushed to involve moderate Arab states, arguing that all sides share a concern about Iran's rising influence following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Iran is accused of backing militant groups throughout the Middle East, including the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which seized power from Abbas's secular Fatah faction in the Gaza Strip in June.
Hamas has denounced the conference and thousand of Hamas supporters waving the group's green flag demonstrated in Gaza City on Tuesday to reject the US-championed conference.
One man was killed in the West Bank as Palestinian police fired in the air and pummeled demonstrators to disperse protests. At least 35 people were wounded.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank were also anxiously watching the outcome of the talks fearing they could spell the end of their dream of a “Greater Israel.”
Analysts say the US administration will have to intervene at the highest levels to break the deadlock in the peace process and reach a final deal. But the White House said Bush will not impose solutions, rather he will facilitate negotiations.