WASHINGTON - George Bush yesterday encountered the weakest of welcomes for his call for an international peace conference on the Middle East.
A day after he unveiled his plan for a conference of Israelis, Palestinians and Arab governments in the autumn, there were few signs of optimism that such a gathering could produce a final resolution to the conflict.
The White House moved to douse expectations. "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not," Tony Snow, the White House's press secretary, told reporters.
He added the conference would not address final status issues, such as borders, further lowering expectations.
Israel had put Washington on notice earlier yesterday that it was not prepared to discuss such issues as borders at the conference.
"We have been very clear that we are not willing to discuss at this stage the three core issue of borders, refugees and Jerusalem," Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told reporters.
In Damascus, Syria's president, Bashar Assad, initially dismissed the idea of a conference as rhetoric.
But he later proposed a number of conditions for Syria's participation, which were similar to those in operation during talks between Israel and Syria in the 1990s.
The announcement on Monday from the White House had seemed at first to signal a change for Mr Bush who has resisted becoming involved in trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
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But with just 18 months left in his presidency, he is seen as desperate to leave a positive legacy in the Middle East. The appointment of Tony Blair as envoy to the quartet of Middle East peacemakers may also have forced Mr Bush's hand. Mr Blair makes his first visit to the region next week.
Even so, it remains unclear how deeply Mr Bush will commit to peacemaking. He has left the details of preparing for the conference to the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
Ms Rice will also chair the summit, which state department officials say could be held in the United States.
"It's not a very clear road map for what this conference is supposed to accomplish," said Ed Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel.
"There is a deep reluctance to get into the weeds. You have got to have follow-up of a very serious kind, where the presidency is engaged."
State department officials said they were still reaching out to Arab governments to attend the conference.
Mr Bush's intervention comes at a particularly bleak moment, with the Palestinians split between a West Bank under control of Fatah, and Gaza under the control of Hamas. Hamas is unlikely to be invited to the conference.
"I think what is not going to fly is this attempt by the United States and Israelis to pretend that Gaza isn't there and you can deal with only half of the Palestinian territory and population," said MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum.
"You can't completely cut Hamas out, and not offer all Palestinians a horizon. You can't have peace just in the West Bank."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007