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Will Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal shake the hand of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni? Will this be the hand that rocks Annapolis? As I write these words, it is still unclear whether the Saudi diplomat will even be attending the conference. The Arab foreign ministers who convened yesterday in Cairo were supposed to determine whether the Arab states invited to Annapolis would send foreign ministers or only ambassadors - or whether each country would be at liberty to act as it saw fit. The very fact that a summit was needed on the eve of the conference speaks to the crux of the dilemma: It is not the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that hangs in the balance. The real question is how much credit Arab states are willing to extend to an American president who so far, in their opinion, has demonstrated unreserved support for Israel without contributing substantively to promoting the Palestinian cause.

These days it is the "Palestinian dream" that is all the rage among Arab leaders. "If the conference will fulfill the Palestinian dream to establish an independent state, let us all go there to fulfill the dream. But if the conference does not fulfill the dream, then I think that Egypt and other states will have reservations about participating in the meeting," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said after President Hosni Mubarak met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at the beginning of the month. And how will the Egyptian minister know whether the conference is going to realize the Palestinian dream? He knows the content of the talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, based on which he and the Saudis understand that there is nothing to get excited about.

But even when Olmert states publicly that Annapolis should be called a meeting and not a summit - that is, a forum at which no substantive decisions will be made - Arab states still have good reason to attend. That good reason is called Syria. Until this week, Syria was still on the list of extremist states, almost part of the axis of evil, even though it is not "formally" included therein. Syria was not a candidate to be invited to Annapolis, which, after all, was intended for Israel and the Palestinians and for sponsors dubbed "moderate states" - the "Arab quartet" of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Ignoring the Syrian slice

Syria, realizing early on that it would not be able to cajole Washington into extending an invitation, adopted a "pan-Arab" position. According to this stance, if the Golan Heights issue was not going to be on the agenda, Syria had no interest in attending. This approach created a dilemma for Egypt and the Saudis: How could they go to Annapolis, which President Bush initiated in July, and at which, he said, the Palestinians' neighbors would also be present, without Syria? How was it possible to accede to Bush, who made the basis for Annapolis the Arab initiative that was adopted by the Beirut summit in 2003, without addressing the question of the Golan Heights, Israeli withdrawal from which is an integral to the initiative? Can the Arab states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, slice up the Arab initiative and deal with the Palestinian slice while ignoring the Syrian one?

Not even Riyadh, whose relations with Damascus have been in deep-freeze since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005, could accept Syria's forced absence from the conference. Annapolis gave the Saudis an opportunity to make an important contribution to Syria. Not because of any great fondness for President Bashar Assad - two weeks ago, an important news Web site under his auspices called Saudi Arabia the "house of Satan" - but because Saudi Arabia needs Syrian cooperation in Lebanon.

The Lebanese parliament was set to meet today to determine the country's next president. The broad differences between the sides have not yet been resolved, and the Saudis, who are working in conjunction with the coalition of Saad al-Hariri on the one hand, and with the United States and France on the other, also need a nod from Syria. Hence the Saudi pressure for Syria's participation in Annapolis.

No less important for the Saudis is the effort to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran on the Palestinian question. This was the guiding rationale that finally persuaded Washington to invite Syria to the conference. Because when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared to leaders of the Jewish community - in her address to the annual United Jewish Communities' General Assembly in Nashville - that one goal of Annapolis was to rebuff the Iranian influence, it became clear that there was nothing like an invitation to Syria to bolster that approach.

Syria, for its part, made two important gestures in an effort to receive an invitation. The regime organized a well-publicized tour of its border with Iraq for the foreign diplomatic corps in Damascus, to show off its efforts to guard the area, demonstrating its cooperation with the U.S. in this regard. Syria also made it clear to Palestinian groups opposed to the Annapolis summit that it would not allow them to hold a "counter-conference" on its soil. Syria thereby joined the list of countries worthy of participating in the Annapolis summit.

Syrian participation in the conference will be construed as an achievement by Washington - not in the context of resolving the Palestinian issue, but on the scorecard against Iran. The next question will be how far Washington will be able or will want to leverage Syria's participation to advance Israeli-Syrian talks, thereby dislodging Iran from the Palestinian arena, and what price Lebanon will pay for it. Will Lebanon again become the bill of sale for Israeli-Syrian negotiations?

Axis of evil no longer

There is one thing that Washington (and Israel) will not easily be able to revoke: You cannot invite Syria to Annapolis and the next day accuse it of being part of the axis of evil. As matters look now, Annapolis will be better for Syria than it will be for the Palestinians, and this, too, is no secret to the other Arab states. In fact, according to Washington's approach, which holds that the Middle East is monolithic and that any movement in one part of the region immediately affects another (one of the reasons cited for the war against Iraq was that it would ensure peace throughout the Middle East), it is precisely progress in the Syrian arena that should take precedence. This is because Israeli-Syrian negotiations will not only diminish Iran's role in the Palestinian arena; they will also make Hezbollah fear for the stability of the Syrian roof over its head. If Syria enters into negotiations, why should the symbolic government of Lebanon, the one that is incapable of functioning in its own homeland, not get its act together and talk to Israel? And if the Israeli-Syrian dialogue advances, maybe the Israeli-Palestinian talks will also make progress.

In other words, if Bush wants to record a diplomatic achievement of any kind before the end of his presidency a year from now, it might be worth his while to prefer the cold fish from Damascus to the sardine from Ramallah. True, this American paradigm has so far had no basis, because even if Iraq grows quiet, Lebanon will continue to seethe, and even the resolution of the Lebanon issue will not affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but when a U.S. administration prefers to use a wide brush to paint the separation lines between "good and bad" in the Middle East, it now has more grounds for including Syria as part of the good.

The Annapolis conference is generating domestic criticism in "moderate" states like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - moderate only in their attitude toward the United States and Israel, not toward their own citizens. Because what is the extent of their influence if they cannot induce the United States to adopt an active policy toward Israel and if all their clout boils down to participation in an event whose inevitable failure will also imperil the Arab initiative? If Annapolis ends only with a call to establish two states for two nations, while the road map remains the minefield that both sides have to cross, how will Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan hoist anew the banner of the Arab initiative, which calls for a full withdrawal from all the territories, including the Golan Heights, and a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem? What exactly was the mess of pottage for which they sold their initiative? Now all that's missing is for the Saudi foreign minister, if he actually shows up, to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart and thereby generate an impressive headline - "Saudi Arabia considering diplomatic ties with Israel" - for the conference to be transformed from a failure into a circus.