The familiar ironic glint briefly returned to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's tired eyes when he noted the only invited country that, "unfortunately," will not attend the Annapolis conference: Djibouti. Then, asked about the Saudis' determination not to shake hands, he showed his fighting spirit. A few weeks ago, he noted, people said it would be a "monumental achievement" if the Saudis came at all. Yet now that they are coming, people suddenly want them "to hug you before all the world's cameras and kiss you and invite you for a weekend in Riyadh."
The question of Saudi participation, which has hovered over Annapolis since it was first announced, often seemed no less important than progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Saudi Arabia can provide three crucial things: religious backing for an agreement on Jerusalem's holy sites, neutralization of Hamas and financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. It has also replaced Egypt over the last year as the leader of the Arab world.
Olmert, who predicted months ago that a high-level Saudi delegation would attend, repeatedly declared yesterday, "We're calm" - a statement that naturally arouses questions as to whether there is reason to be otherwise. There will be a Saudi handshake "when they're ready," he said, offering no predictions as to when that might be. He also refused to predict how long Israeli-Palestinian talks will take.
In his speech today, Olmert will call for normalization between the Arab states and Israel. But the Arab states, many of which were disappointed by the conference even before it opened, are likely to devote their speeches to blaming Israel.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was unequivocal. "I won't shake Olmert's hand," he told American reporters at a press briefing in Washington. Israeli journalists were not admitted.
Olmert almost suffered a serious setback upon arriving in Washington on Sunday: His hotel was not equipped to broadcast Beitar Jerusalem's game against Maccabi Netanya. Fortunately, his son Shaul came to visit from New York and solved the problem via the Internet. Olmert was happy: Beitar won, 1-0.
The next day, Radio Tzafon correspondent Zuheir Bahalul asked him whether Israel would transfer the Triangle region to the PA if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement called for territorial exchanges. But Olmert evaded the question, preferring to enthuse to the legendary sports broadcaster about the Beitar game.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak joined Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in their meeting with President Bush yesterday. Barak is trying to maintain a relatively low profile. He still has doubts about Annapolis, but does not want to be seen as hindering Olmert. His staff has a new line: The most important talks are those between Barak, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Quartet envoy Tony Blair: Only they have any chance of producing anything.
Asked yesterday about Barak's reservations, Olmert responded: "A little more respect, please. After all, this is someone who was prime minister, chief of staff, defense minister, and is now defense minister again." Barak is obligated to examine issues from a security standpoint, Olmert said, but "in the end, he concluded that this meeting is important and needs to succeed."
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