WASHINGTON - At half past midnight on Saturday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife Aliza stepped on an El Al aircraft on their way to Annapolis. Olmert was full of smiles when he approached the journalists accompanying him on the flight. As is his habit, he sought to correct their errors.
"I heard on the radio that I am sitting in my chair, making changes to my speech, even though I was still close to Shoresh [near Jerusalem]," Olmert said. The reporters tried to ask questions about the summit, about his speech, about the expected arrival of the Syrians, but Olmert had no patience for that. "We had always been in favor of Syria's participation, and we will certainly welcome such a development."
And then, Udi Segal of Channel 2 raised a hot domestic issue: the strike by the high school teachers. Union members showed up at the airport in droves, near the area where Olmert's entourage and journalists go through security. (Olmert of course arrives with a guarded convoy and goes straight to the plane, and does not have to answer questions like "who packed the bags?") "Ayala Hason [a Channel 1 reporter], education is in a shambles," shouted the striking teachers at the journalists waiting in line.
Olmert did not like the question. Prime ministers on their way to important diplomatic missions do not like to deal with troubling domestic issues. "Write whatever you want," he said angrily, "the negotiations with the teachers are being conducted by the education minister and the minister of finance." He turned and went back to business class.
But the striking teachers did not let up. As soon as he arrived at the Mandarin Hotel in Washington, there were two teachers wearing t-shirts saying "No Education - No Future." The protest was calm, without any signs or shouting. Cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel promised to talk with the protesters at a later stage of the visit, and only said that "if your leadership was not stubborn it would have been able to close [a deal] a long time ago."
The spokesman for the Israel embassy in Washington, David Segal, was busy yesterday more than any of his colleagues. At noon he made his way on the road leading from the U.S. capital to that of the State of Maryland, Annapolis, accompanied by the team of spokesman that are meant to explain Israel's positions to the journalists who cover the summit. It was a preparatory tour, and not the first of its kind, for the people who will, starting tomorrow, be very busy because they will be the only people available to speak with between the long hours separating the initial speeches and the press releases.
The Americans have closed a significant portion of the proceedings to the press. This way they hope to prevent the embarrassing photo of the Saudi Arabian foreign minister turning his back to his Israeli colleague. In any case, the battle for public opinion - and over the photograph - is at the top of the agendas of the organizers and participants in the hours that remain before the summit. Real negotiations are not supposed to take place in this forum. As such, all that is left is form.
This, for example is also the main significance of the joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration the two sides have been working on, with American mediation: not an important declaration because everyone knows what is on the agenda. But the concern is that in its absence the impression will be one of failure. The two delegations, the Israeli and the Palestinian, emphasized yesterday that the joint declaration is not essential to the summit's success.
With or without a declaration, the first day of the Annapolis week saw Syria come out the big winner yesterday, when for 24 hours the Palestinians were nearly forgotten and the public interest in Syria's participation overshadowed the topic at the center of the conference. Here's another reason to bar the media from the session at which the Syrian deputy foreign minister will give an address and speak, no doubt, about the Golan Heights. Israeli spokespeople such as Miri Eisin and Palestinians such as Saeb Erekat had to delve into their bag of rhetorical tricks to parry questions about Syria, and to steer interviewers back on track.
People close to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday sought to underscore her success in connection with the preparations for the conference. She showed, they said, that she wields a great deal of power in the administration now, and that the Israeli-Palestinian brief was placed in her hands for safekeeping, which no one would challenge at this point.
Early last summer, the day after President George W. Bush's speech announcing the conference, his spokesman at the time, Tony Snow, was quick to lower expectations: "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not. This is a meeting to sit down and try to find ways of building fundamental and critical institutions for the Palestinians that are going to enable them to have self-government and democracy."
Rice thought otherwise - and acted accordingly. She also won, at least at this stage: At the end of this process Bush finds himself devoting three days to "Condi's gathering," which at least based on the number of participants is certainly no less than "a big peace conference."
The conspiracy theory
But the important question pertaining to Rice's power is actually the one regarding Iran. On Wednesday Olmert will meet with President Bush to discuss that topic - of greater importance to both of them. Olmert will also meet with Vice President Dick Cheney, who believes that the Annapolis conference is a distraction that strengthens the Iranians instead of weakening them. But as with the Palestinian brief, the Iranian brief is currently being controlled by Rice's office - and in Israel there is growing nervousness at the evident foot-dragging in dealing with it.
Olmert's timetable on this visit - one meeting with Bush on the Palestinian issue, one on the Iranian issue - gives credence to the "conspiracy theory" linking the two topics, Palestinian and Iranian, and hints at Israel's willingness to exhibit flexibility toward the Palestinians - in an attempt to bolster the international front the U.S. is leading against Iran.
It would be more convenient for Bush to move against Iran if he demonstrates that he is working for the Palestinians, and it would be easier for Olmert to sell Israelis on concessions to the Palestinians if he persuades them that it helps to remove the existential threat of the Iranian nuclear program.
If it were up to Bush and Olmert alone, one may surmise they would agree to a deal "evacuating the settlements from the West Bank in return for destroying the nuclear facilities in Iran." The problem for them both is that they are shackled politically. Olmert has a hard time moving forward on "the core issues" with the Palestinians, for fear of losing his coalition partners on the right, while Bush faces an administration, Congress, public opinion and friendly governments that are largely opposed to yet another American military adventure in the Middle East.
In the coming year, before Bush's presidency ends and Israel glides into new elections, the two leaders will work hard to overcome the political hurdles and advance their shared vision in the Middle East.
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