After all the well-earned skepticism, Annapolis produced some progress – one might even say success. There was an exceptionally positive atmosphere between the two principal parties, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Attendance, especially from Arab and Muslim-majority countries, was impressive. And we witnessed the birth of a mechanism for peace negotiations, which inspires hope that Annapolis will be more than the one-day wonder that many had feared it would be.

Secretary of State Rice deserves commendation for this notable feat, and for thus far surpassing the peace-process expectations of even her strongest supporters. But there remains a long, long way to go.

As this process moves forward – and hopefully that is the direction it will go -- all of us need to be realistic. Israel and the Palestinians established the end of 2008 as their target date for reaching a final agreement. That is a fine goal, but we shouldn’t inflexibly hold the parties to it should the circumstances demand more time, and we shouldn’t push them beyond the pace with which they are comfortable. We all know that both Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert are sincere and firmly committed to peace, and they will do as much as is politically possible to achieve peace.

It is more important to get the agreement right than to get it fast. There should be no pressure for firm but artificial timetables, and I commend the Administration for not giving in to pressure to establish inflexible benchmarks.

It is also critical that the parties engage directly. The only viable agreement will be one the parties will have achieved themselves, not one forced upon them by outsiders.

It is clear that Olmert and Abbas have personal chemistry and confidence in one another to a degree unprecedented between any two Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But to maximize mutual confidence between Israeli and Palestinian societies, it is important that the parties refrain from incitement; this is a key requirement of the first phase of the Roadmap.

In that regard, I am profoundly disturbed by two post-Annapolis incidents involving the Palestinians. One involved a map, displayed on Palestinian Authority TV just one day after Annapolis, which showed Palestine as including all territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; on this map, Israel simply doesn’t exist.

The other involved an anachronistic “Palestinian Solidarity Day” ceremony held annually at the United Nations. At this year’s ceremony, just two days after Annapolis, speaker after speaker followed the traditional pattern of denouncing the state of Israel in the most vicious and vituperative of ways, making a mockery of the spirit of Annapolis. That, my friends, is not the right way to relaunch a peace process.

Most important, we should all remember that achieving a peace agreement on paper – exceedingly difficult though it will be – is, in fact, the easy part. The far harder part will be implementing it on the ground. And by far the biggest challenge of all is for the Palestinians to put an end to terrorism and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, in Gaza as well as the West Bank. Rockets and peace don’t go well together.

If there is to be peace, the parties will need the active support of their Arab neighbors. We expect the Arab world to support President Abbas’ government generously, both financially and politically; to resume and to enhance a normalization process with the state of Israel that was interrupted by the intifada that began in 2000; and to do its utmost to isolate Hamas and to end the smuggling of arms, cash, and terrorists into Gaza. Here Egypt has a special responsibility which it has so far systematically evaded.

Both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas deserve to be commended for their commitment and courage in the face of domestic constraints. Both have a chance to be remembered as great and serious statesmen.

As they start formal negotiations next week, these two leaders should know that we stand firmly behind them, ready to assist in any way possible. At the same time, it is states throughout the Middle East that have the greatest stake in their success, and we expect them – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others – to support both parties in a manner consonant with the priority they claim to place on peace.

Lastly, I would urge our Administration to keep its eyes on the Israeli-Palestinian prize. Putin’s authoritarian Russia is proposing to host a conference early next year that reportedly would focus on the Syrian track. That would be a big mistake and a distraction that would strain Israel’s energies and personnel resources and undermine the fragile hopes for success on the Palestinian track. I urge the Bush Administration to rebuff this Russian effort and to repress any temptation to spend a few winter days in Moscow stroking Putin’s ego and watching the Palestinian track go off the rails.