ANALYSIS / Attendance of Arab FMs Is First Victory of Annapolis

Move shows Arab states recluctant to leave handling of Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Washington, J'lem.

A phone call by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to her Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, apparently persuaded the Arab foreign ministers to attend Annapolis. The key was her promise that the Golan Heights would be on the agenda. Damascus is still refusing to commit, but that is no longer important: Even if Syria stays away, it will now be violating the Arab consensus, which has given its imprimatur to Annapolis.

The Arab states' agreement to send their foreign ministers is the first American success of the much-criticized conference. But this was not merely a gesture to U.S. President George Bush; it reflects a two-pronged Arab strategy. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan object to Bush's division of the Middle East into moderate and radical states; they are also no longer willing to leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Washington and Jerusalem.

Thus the main question at last week's meeting of Arab foreign ministers was what would they gain, or lose, by sending high-level representatives to Annapolis. The minus side was the risk of granting high-profile Arab support to a failed conference, as well as a seal of approval to the internal Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas. On the plus side, argued supporters of attending, their presence would help ensure that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement conforms to the Arab peace initiative, which Bush cited in his speech announcing the conference.

Even more important, however, the Arab states needed to ensure that Syria was included, because they - and especially Saudi Arabia - need Syrian help to resolve the crisis in Lebanon. As a bonus, Syria's inclusion helps blur the American distinction between moderate and radical states; it also creates a linkage between the Palestinian and Syrian tracks.

Bush and Rice scored a victory with the Arab foreign ministers' agreement to attend. The question is whether they will follow this with further diplomatic action after the conference, or whether they intend to rest on their laurels. If the latter, the U.S. will have trouble mobilizing Arab support of its interests in the future - not only on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but also in Iraq and Lebanon.