ANNAPOLIS - The genocide in Darfur is more horrifying, global warming is a greater cause for concern, and the danger that nuclear Pakistan will fall into the hands of Al Qaida causes more sleepless nights. And still, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can bring 50 leaders and foreign ministers from all over the world to a small American coastal town on a clear late-autumn day, in yet another effort to achieve "a final status agreement within a year."
Even at a time when Palestinian terrorism has declined, and Israel is avoiding controversial actions in the territories, the world's statesmen were willing to drop everything and come here. They have not made a similar effort to solve the problems of Iraq, where far more people are killed every day than in Jerusalem or Gaza.
President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have chalked up an impressive achievement as their terms near an end. They managed to bring together in one room Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and 12 Arab foreign ministers, with an accompanying chorus from Russia, China, Europe and even South America. There were no anthems, balloons or flags, and the media were deployed at a safe distance from the conference's participants. The speeches were positive and expressed hope, without going overboard.
Will this result in a final-status agreement? After all the past disappointments, nobody is willing to bet on that. Olmert says that Annapolis is not a turning point in the history of the region, but rather an event that could aid his negotiations with Abu Mazen. He mentions that the joint declaration merely promises that the sides will "make every effort" to reach an agreement by the end of 2008, but does not promise that this effort will succeed. Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, expressed similar caution this week, making use of many "ifs," "maybes" and "providing thats." Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, was even less generous.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who attended a similar event when he served as prime minister, identifies two differences between Camp David and Annapolis. First, in 2000 he had to deal with Yasser Arafat, whose will to reach an agreement was doubtful, but who was in full control of the territories. Today Israel is negotiating with the weak Fatah government in the West Bank, while the other half of the Palestinian people live under Hamas rule in Gaza. The second difference concerns the region. Seven years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was still taking place in an isolated corner of a world that was basically calm. Today it has turned into a microcosm of the larger conflict in the Middle East.
Bush A, Bush B
Everyone assumes that this is a case of black or white: Either Bush is really backing his secretary of state's initiative, or he is only pretending to do so. It is clear that Rice is the pusher, the mover, the enthusiastic one. It is also obvious that there are those among the president's advisers who are less than convinced that this is a brilliant move. A group of Republican Jewish leaders who met with Hadley this week left him feeling that the one person who most wanted the conference was Olmert. Perhaps even more than Rice. The prime minister confirms the suspicion.
Tony Blair (see interview on p. 4) has no doubt that Bush is committed. Several Democratic candidates who were out this week looking for a way to attack the administration, while trying not to appear as though they were attacking the conference itself, chose an opposite view: Rice wants it, but Bush is only pretending.
There is Bush the "idealist" and Bush the "realist," as one of his acquaintances put it. Sometimes one prevails, sometimes the other. Most of the time they simply coexist. Sometimes Bush believes that he will succeed in bringing the Palestinians to water and make them drink, too. At other moments he views the Middle East with cruel sobriety and assumes that he will leave the Palestinian problem to the next president.
This week's festivities probably strengthened his idealistic side. The Annapolis conference placed Olmert at the center of the international stage for the first time. As he sees it, all the attending leaders and foreign ministers came to listen to him and Abu Mazen.
Olmert is familiar with the criticism routinely leveled at Bush, which paints him as a superficial person who has no inkling about international issues. Even this week he got the name of the Palestinian president wrong, thereby presenting satirical television shows with a possibility to rebroadcast all his previous blunders, including the particularly embarrassing one in which he mistakenly announced the death of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa.
"Anyone who shows contempt for Bush is not a serious person," says Olmert in defense of his friend. "He is a sharp and intelligent man. The delegations sat with him ahead of the conference, and he gave an excellent 20-minute briefing. He was familiar with all the details and nuances."
The Saudi-Israeli dance
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is one of the veteran foreign ministers. When he began his term, in 1975, Yigal Allon was Israel's foreign minister, and Henry Kissinger the U.S. secretary of state. Back then, Shimon Peres served as defense minister in the first Rabin government, which signed the interim agreement with Egypt in Sinai .
In the 1990s, at the height of the Oslo process, the Americans recruited Prince Saud as a guest player in several peace productions. A veteran of the U.S. administration recalls a dinner, during which the prince met the Israeli foreign minister for the first time. Throughout the entire evening the two conducted a strange dance. Peres tried to approach, the Saudi skipped backward, with the American hosts successfully preventing an embarrassing meeting.
This week Prince Saud was the most important guest at Annapolis. Among the speeches of dozens of foreign ministers, only few were really crucial. When the Slovenian foreign minister spoke, for example, Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary general, took off his dark sunglasses and dozed off. But everyone wanted to hear Saud.
His participation in the conference reflected the Saudis' leadership in the Arab world, the inter-Arab legitimization of Abu Mazen, and the chance for the normalization of relations with Israel. In Israel there were considerable fears that the Arabs would use the event to level harsh criticism at it, with the usual claims about the occupation, the checkpoints and the fence. To the surprise of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the speeches, even that of Amr Moussa and the Saudi foreign minister, were much calmer, and made do with a general call for an end to the occupation, something that also featured in Bush's speech. None of the speakers mentioned UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which the Arabs interpret as a recognition of the right of return.
At the end of the discussions, Livni was approached by several foreign ministers - from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman - who had met with her in the past clandestinely, as well as others who had met with her openly, such as the ministers from Morocco and Tunisia; they all shook her hand in front of their colleagues. Olmert and Livni want all the countries that participated in the Annapolis summit to allow Israel to open offices in their capitals, in preparation for full diplomatic relations. As in the previous round, this time, too, the Saudis refused to go all the way, and announced that there would be no historic handshake.
"It's true that Saud al-Faisal did not see fit to come to me and tell me how much he admires Israel," says Olmert, "but here the Israeli prime minister stands, saying things that the Arabs are pleased to hear, while also talking about Palestinian and Arab terror, and in the end the Saudi foreign minister stands up and applauds. That's no small feat, is it?"
A sports fan engaged in politics
Rice called her Saudi colleague "maybe 100 times," according to the U.S. administration, an effort that reached its climax in the presidential telephone call to King Abdullah several days before the conference. What convinced the Saudis to attend? Maybe it was the challenge presented to them by Rice, who asked them to demonstrate that they are capable of leading the Arab world. Maybe it was the regional fear of Iran. And maybe they just wanted to be nice to Bush.
They were also undoubtedly influenced by the threats issued by Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and his Democratic colleagues, to the effect that they will place obstacles in the way of the huge arms deal the administration is trying to promote with Saudi Arabia. Next week the public will be able for the first time to peruse details of this deal - not all of it, only the first section - when it is officially submitted to Congress. We can assume that the timing is no coincidence. By coming to Annapolis this week, Faisal helped the administration ensure that all the obstacles to confirming the transaction would be removed.
Lantos is one of the five U.S. congressmen who made their way to Olmert's floor in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Monday. They were gathered with some difficulty by Israel's diligent emissaries to Capitol Hill, Daniel Meron and Haim Regev. Congress was on a vacation of sorts, and most of its members were not in town. An hour before their arrival, Olmert bragged to the Israeli correspondents about the fact that he had watched the Beitar Jerusalem soccer game the day before. Sunday was a day of sparse meetings, and Olmert managed to watch another sports event to - the Patriots-Eagles football (won by an undefeated New England, 31-28). His expertise in Americans sports impressed the congressmen. Olmert is no politician who pretends to be a sports fan; he is a fan who sometimes takes a break from sports to engage in politics. Maybe that is why, as he mentioned several times this week, he is so "relaxed."
The achievement of which Olmert is most proud is his close relationship with Bush. Already during his first visit to Washington as prime minister, he devoted several hours to a private conversation with the president . "The most important thing that should be said about Bush," Olmert summarizes, "is that had I told him that I was opposed to this move, he wouldn't have embarked on it. I could have blocked the move. Had I been unwilling to cooperate with him, Bush wouldn't have coerced me."
Warm transatlantic relations
Almost every prime minister likes to attest to warm relations with the U.S. president. Bill Clinton had difficulty concealing his displeasure with Benjamin Netanyahu. Ronald Reagan usually welcomed Menachem Begin graciously, but later wrote in his diary how much he preferred Shimon Peres.
"Ehud Barak," Olmert said this week, "sat in on a meeting with the president, and was amazed at the importance the president attributes to this relationship." We speak for hours on the secure phone, the prime minister said. When he was prime minister, Barak himself spent many hours on the phone with Clinton; they also enjoyed a warm relationship. Of course it helped that Barak saved Clinton from Netanyahu. In any case, he certainly knows how to appreciate Olmert's achievement in his relations with Bush. But he can also tell Olmert a tale or two about how such relations do not always save a prime minister in the local political arena.
Olmert is more at ease with Bush than Rice, for example - even though she, like him, understands and loves football - because of another love that she doesn't share: politics. Bush understands politics extremely well, said an acquaintance of both of them this week, and knows how to appreciate a political act and political difficulties. But "Condi" doesn't understand a thing about politics, which is why she sometimes runs into a wall."
Olmert's most brilliant political move, which saved him his job after the Second Lebanon War, was bringing Avigdor Lieberman into the government as minister of strategic affairs. Yisrael Beiteinu's joining the coalition crushed the opposition on the right, made it easier for Shas to join the government, and has become Olmert's flak jacket against the external pressures for overly swift progress on the Palestinian track. The threats issued by Lieberman and Shas to resign from the government are what prevented a mention of the "core issues" in the joint declaration at Annapolis.
Although Lieberman has of late been demonstrating discomfort with participating in the government, Olmert believes he will stay on even after negotiations on the core issues begin. "Lieberman," says Olmert, "is the smartest person in the government." This although Olmert himself, as well as Ehud Barak, usually consider themselves to be the smartest people in any room they're in.
Lieberman, says Olmert, "understands that if you're in the government, you always have more influence than in the opposition." That was Shimon Peres' standard explanation for participating in national unity governments with the Likud despite the protests of the left. "I'm very attentive to Lieberman," continues Olmert. "He also brings up relevant points. Lieberman is a person who is interested in the peace process. I have no doubt about that."
"Yes, of course, Yishai, too."
And meanwhile, in Iran
If Israel or the U.S. bombs one of Iran's nuclear facilities, the Annapolis conference may be credited as the event that made possible important progress on the way to this decision.
"I spoke to the president with unparalleled sharpness about these matters," says Olmert, "and my comments were extremely well-received - regarding the freedom we are reserving for ourselves, and what we will and won't do." Barak met separately with Cheney, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and with Rice too. These discussions, which had already begun during Barak's visit about a month ago, did not deal with the Palestinians, according to a senior Israeli official, but "the broader regional picture, the threats and the responses." And what did they talk about? "About planning an infrastructure for the other, or the upcoming, challenges on the agenda. An infrastructure of understandings."
Iran, according to all analyses and commentaries, was the frightening monster that impelled all the conference's participants to crowd together at Annapolis. Yet, at the same time, they were all careful not to anger the Iranians. Nobody mentioned them in an official speech, not even Olmert and Bush. As far as they are concerned, it was enough that Ahmadinejad was sitting at home and watching the Saudis, the Bahrainis and the UAR, together with the Indonesians, Pakistanis and Malaysians, and even the Syrian representative, sitting and listening to the Israeli prime minister. It's no wonder that he cursed the conference.
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