President George W. Bush meets Palestinian and Israeli leaders on Monday in a drive for Palestinian statehood before he leaves office in 14 months.

Expectations are low for three days of meetings in Washington and nearby Annapolis, Maryland, because Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas all face political challenges at home.

Syria and Saudi Arabia promised to attend the Annapolis talks on Tuesday, although Damascus will send a deputy minister rather than the foreign minister hoped for by U.S. organizers.

Washington says the hard work will begin only afterward, when Israelis and Palestinians must tackle the issues at the core of the conflict -- Palestinian refugee rights, Jerusalem, security and the borders of a future Palestine.

This conference will signal international support for the Israelis' and Palestinians' intention to commence negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of peace between these two peoples, Bush said in welcoming the two Middle East leaders who arrived over the weekend.

Having largely shunned personal Middle East diplomacy during his seven years in office, Bush will meet Olmert and Abbas separately and together. They will be joined at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis by envoys from more than 40 countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has argued that Annapolis would be an opportunity for Israel and Sunni Arabs to close ranks against regional extremism -- an allusion chiefly to Iran's nuclear program, many political analysts believe.

Iran has condemned Annapolis as a ruse for aiding Israel.

All politicians in the world are aware that this conference is doomed to failure, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a televised speech in Tehran.


The Annapolis bid follows years of failed U.S.-brokered efforts, the last by Bush's predecessor Bill Clinton, to end decades of conflict and forge a Palestinian state.

A senior aide to Abbas, Nabil Shaath, told Reuters that after Annapolis, Israelis and Palestinians would pick up from principles already agreed on during the Clinton administration.

This allows us not to start from the very beginning but continue from something already agreed upon, Shaath said.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said he expected both sides to recommit to a 2003 road map which provides benchmarks that include a cessation of Jewish settlement in the West Bank occupied by Israel in a 1967 war as well as a Palestinian crackdown on militants.

The United States argues the timing is right to relaunch negotiations despite the challenges faced by the key players.

Abbas in June lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists, who are not invited to Annapolis and on Monday were holding an alternative conference to promote their opposition to peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state.

Any decisions that emerge from this (Annapolis) conference ... will not be binding on the Palestinian people, only on those who signed them, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told reporters.

Olmert's domestic standing has been sapped by corruption scandals and Israel's Lebanon war, and he faces opposition to concessions from rightists in his fragile governing coalition.

Bush, weakened by the unpopular Iraq war, leaves office in January 2009, and the campaign to succeed him is in full swing.

Underscoring the difficulties, Israel and the Palestinians appear hard put to agree on a joint document to present at Annapolis, though Rice and Hadley have both played that down.

Rice invited Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei for dinner on Sunday to try to seal a deal on the document. Livni's chief of staff, Aharon Abramovitch, said the advance talks were continuing into Monday.

There are still unresolved issues, and (Monday) may be the last opportunity to overcome the issues, he told Israel Radio.

U.S. officials have said they expect negotiations on the document to continue right up until the Annapolis meeting.

(Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Washington and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, writing by Sue Pleming)