On November 16, 1977, a journalist asked then-foreign minister Moshe Dayan if he thought Egyptian president Anwar Sadat would really come to Israel. At the same time, Sadat was meeting with Hafez Assad, his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, in an effort to gain his blessing for the planned visit to Jerusalem and to convince him to join. Dayan was unable to offer the reporter a definitive answer. He placed a piece of apple on a slice of cheese, and gave the reporter one of his sly looks: "I don't know if Sadat will come. I guess he will, but if I'm mistaken, I'll explain to you next week why it was assumed from the start that he would not show."
The story is retold here, on the morning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert departs for Annapolis, to highlight the uncertainty under which heads of state operate. Three days prior to Sadat's touchdown in Ben-Gurion International Airport, Dayan did not know for certain whether the visit would actually take place. This was the same man who two months earlier held secret talks in Morocco with Hassan al-Tuhami, Sadat's envoy, and began preparing the ground for the dramatic peace initiative - and still he was unsure.
If during that same week, opinion polls had been taken in Israel about conditions for peace, it is reasonable to assume that in the best case scenario, the picture would have been complex: refusal to withdraw from Sinai, but support for the effort to bring an end to the conflict with Egypt. When Sadat descended from the aircraft, in a single stroke he broke the psychological barrier that divided Israel and Egypt, and completely altered the mood in this country. The Egyptian president charmed the Israeli leadership and the general public; from being a satanic figure that tricked the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, the mysterious Middle Eastern prince transformed into someone with whom it was desirable to reach an agreement and even pay the full price he was asking for it.
As Olmert takes off for the United States, he is feeling his way forward: He aspires to break the status quo in relations with the Palestinians but lacks public backing for this. According to the public opinion surveys published Friday in Ma'ariv, and mostly in Yedioth Ahronoth, the public's views are contradictory: There is general support for participating in the summit (69 percent in favor), but clear objection to discussing the controversial core issues with the Palestinians (71 percent among the Jewish population). Furthermore, there is objection to paying the cost of achieving an agreement with the Palestinians (63 percent oppose evacuating most of the settlements, 66 percent oppose concessions in Jerusalem). Even the evacuation of the illegal outposts, prior to the conclusion of negotiations with the Palestinians is something the majority of the public (56 percent) opposes.
The political map reflects the public's views: Olmert is going to the summit with his hands tied; if he diverts from the dictates of Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, he may lose his majority in parliament. At this moment, the Knesset is not supporting the prime minister's efforts to break the status quo in Israel's relations with the Palestinians; if he disobeys the parliament - he may lose his job.
In order to help Olmert extricate himself from this bind, the Arab guests at the summit must break their psychological barriers. If the stances taken (or orchestrated) at the summit succeed in shaking the lack of confidence the Israeli public has in the intentions of the Palestinians and the Arab states, its opinion may change. In this respect, it is disappointing to hear the announcement of the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia that he is traveling to the U.S., but does not intend to take part "in this theatrical gesture of shaking hands." The behavior of the Arab foreign ministers toward the Israeli delegation to Annapolis will press a sensitive point among Israelis - their fear that they may be seen as suckers. This will be perceived in Israel as proof there is no chance of successful negotiations with them and of the prime minister's stupidity.
Saud al-Faisal and his colleagues should treat Olmert like Sadat treated Begin in 1977 - not like Farouk al-Shara treated Ehud Barak in Shepherdstown in 2000. They must take into account that the opposition reflected in the polls does not necessarily reflect devotion to the idea of the whole Land of Israel, but uncertainty about the willingness of the Palestinians to end the conflict after an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
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