WASHINGTON &

Just 24 hours after securing an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume long-stalled peace talks, President Bush invited the pair to the White House to ceremonially inaugurate the first formal, direct negotiations in seven years.




Capping an intense flurry of diplomacy that salvaged a joint Israeli-Palestinian agreement at nearby Annapolis, Md., to launch a fresh round of talks, Bush planned to meet separately today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and finally to get them together for an afternoon session declaring the talks formally under way.




After meeting their own low expectations for the Annapolis conference amid intense skepticism, Bush administration officials crowed with delight.




"What has been remarkable about this process is that they are now ready to go," Secretary of State Condoleezza 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.




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."




In another development, diplomats and Palestinian officials said today that Marine Corps. Gen. James Jones, a former NATO commander, has been asked to take on the role of U.S. liaison with Israel and the Palestinians as they try to negotiate a Mideast peace accord. It was not immediately clear whether Jones, who was the top NATO commander in Europe, had accepted the offer.




The diplomats and officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there has been no official announcement.




The United States pledged Tuesday at an international peace conference on the Mideast held in Annapolis, Md., to hold both sides to account if they do not carry out obligations.




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.




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.