WASHINGTON — President Bush's national security advisor said Sunday that the president would not adopt a more activist role in Mideast peace negotiations that start today, even though many observers believe the United States must step up its direct involvement if the effort is to succeed.
On the eve of a U.S.-convened conference in Annapolis, Md., launching the first formal peace talks in seven years, Stephen J. Hadley said Bush believed Washington's role should be to aid and encourage Israelis and Palestinians, not "lean on one side or another and jam a settlement through."
"History has suggested that those efforts to jam have not worked," Hadley said in a conference call with reporters. "We have said from the beginning -- the president has said -- that it is the parties themselves who have to make the peace."
The president's position is likely to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is politically weak at home and fearful that tough concessions could bring about his government's collapse. But it will almost surely disappoint the delegation headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which has been hoping American pressure could force Israeli concessions.
The U.S. stance also is likely to displease many of the Arab and European governments attending the conference that have been urging a more active role.
Many Arab and European diplomats say they believe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to make progress toward peace in the Middle East, but they fear that Bush does not fully share her views and has at times limited her role.
Meanwhile on Sunday, the Syrian government, whose attendance in the conference had been uncertain, announced that it will send its deputy foreign minister. That means all of Israel's key Arab neighbors will attend, though some have indicated that they are lukewarm about the event's potential.
For most of his two terms, Bush has carefully circumscribed America's role in the conflict, believing that the efforts of President Clinton and others to broker a deal were unfair and doomed to fail.
But with his term ending, and the new round of talks offering the possibility of a diplomatic success, many observers wondered whether Bush would adjust his approach. The question had become one of the principal sources of suspense in the run-up to the conference, which will be held tonight and Tuesday.
But Hadley's comments Sunday laid the question to rest with an emphatic no. He said U.S. officials would provide the two sides with whatever help they needed, but would not push for any specific outcome or try to build pressure by setting a deadline.
"The president's view has always been not to impose a negotiation on the party, and we are not going to impose a timetable on the parties, just to reflect American politics or anything else," Hadley said.
And although he acknowledged that there was a need for American diplomacy, he said the president would not be "sitting down and trying to negotiate a border. I think that is something you won't see the president doing."
Although Bush will make it clear at the conference that a peace settlement is "a top priority" for his government in its final year, any role the United States plays will be up to the two sides to decide based on what they think is useful, he said.
Hadley suggested that the precise U.S. role will emerge after the conference, depending on what the two sides decide they need when the talks get underway.
Rice, asked Wednesday whether the conference signaled a new commitment by Bush, said that the president strongly supports the new effort to bring about a peace settlement.
"All I can tell you is that I wouldn't be doing it if he weren't deeply committed to it. . . . And I am quite certain that as it moves forward he will do whatever it takes to get this concluded."
Even so, Bush's positions suggest there may be a gap between his views and those of his chief diplomat, who has labored for years to indicate there is no daylight between them.
Rice has said that she wants to wrap up negotiations before the president's term ends. But Hadley said the administration is not, in fact, setting that date as a deadline.
Completing the deal within a year was "an idea that the parties have articulated," Hadley said.
The conference, with about 50 nations and groups invited, is intended to give international blessing to a new series of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are both politically weak and there are concerns that negotiations could quickly collapse, possibly spurring new violence in the region.
Those who have been advocating stepped-up U.S. involvement include Daniel C. Kurtzer, who was Bush's ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 and Clinton's envoy to Egypt.
In a new book on Middle East peace efforts, "Negotiating Arab Israeli Peace," Kurtzer and co-author Scott B. Lasensky say Bush has "effectively moved to the sidelines" since taking office.