The pessimism barometer surrounding the Annapolis summit now includes a new measure: in addition to the question that has yet to be answered - which Arab states will attend - everyone is waiting for Thursday to hear about the level of the delegations the Arab states will send. Will the Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo tomorrow select themselves, signaling their desire to give real Arab backing to the summit? Or will they only dispatch ambassadors, by which Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will understand that the Arab support he enjoys is limited and that those dignitaries' presence is merely an attempt to contain the insult to U.S. President George W. Bush?
The Arab states may be encouraged by the fact that the United States and Israel have stepped back from their initial positions on Syria, and Damascus was invited to participate in the summit. This has eroded significantly the distinction made between "moderate states" and recalcitrant ones. But the Arab aegis provided to Syria, and the need to adopt her, is not only due to the Golan Heights and negotiations with Israel. More urgently, it is to gain Syria's agreement to the appointment of a new president in Lebanon.
This does not contribute to bolster Abbas, who is already facing serious domestic pressures, with calls for him to boycott Annapolis. Abbas will find it difficult to present a conciliatory stance if around the table he sees Arab ambassadors. This will not only be an insult - it will ensure that he does not diverge one iota from the historical principles of the Palestinian struggle and insist on discussing the conflict's core issues.
The Arab misgivings and fundamental question of whether to attend the summit also reflect the degree to which Washington's standing has been eroded. In July, when Bush announced his initiative, he still believed that at least those "moderate states" will be automatic partners to any American initiative. It now turns out that even an invitation to a conference that is only a get-together - a ceremony of declarations - has become a bargaining chip for Arab states that have so far been unable to resolve a single conflict. Not only are they bridesmaids, they are active actors in the negotiations.
As a result, the United States and Israel are holding two sets of negotiations: one with Abbas, the real guest of honor, and the other with the Arab leaders, in an effort to convince them to show up and support the talks with Abbas. As such, the Arab leaders are given the legitimacy to present their own preconditions for actually holding a meeting.
It is hard to be critical of these leaders when Bush himself linked the Annapolis initiative to the decisions of the Arab League during its Beirut summit in 2002, where the Arab states adopted the Saudi initiative and turned it into an Arab initiative. The Arab League countries see themselves as being obligated to ensure that the Annapolis summit will not diverge from the League's decision. This time it is not merely the Palestinian question, but also the Golan Heights that are on the agenda. Without this, Syria had made it clear that it will not show up.
Could Saudi Arabia, for example, permit itself to appear at the summit - not to mention send its foreign minister - if Syria refuses to participate? Will Bush agree to include the Golan Heights on the agenda so that Saudi Arabia will participate? These questions hint at the diplomatic leverage that the declaratory summit at Annapolis can exercise on the Middle East. As such, Israel, which lowered expectations for the summit to a ceremony for mid-term report cards, may return from the conference with things it had not ordered, such as conditions for moving forward on the real process, the one with the Palestinians.