WASHINGTON – In the chandeliered, mirrored East Room of the White House, soon after the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian support delegations had filed in and taken their places Wednesday evening, a voice came through the speakers just before 7 p.m. announcing that “the program will begin in two minutes.” And, indeed, two minutes later US President Barack Obama led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walk through a center door onto a slightly raised, plantbordered stage.

And, to a large degree, the “program” felt like theater. All the actors wore dark suits; all looked rather stern.

Each leader paid homage to Obama for shepherding through the diplomatic process over the last 20 months, and they all talked about bringing peace to future generations. Obama, like a director carefully watching his charges, stood by the lectern as each “actor” rose to recite his carefully prepared lines.

The words were well phrased, the sentiments came across as deeply felt.

The rub is that it all left one with a distinct sense of having seen this performance before.

The leaders spoke about the need to “ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren” (Obama); about “seizing the current opportunity” and “not letting it slip through your fingers” (Mubarak); about having “all eyes upon us” and needing to “show results sooner rather than later” (Abdullah); about a “new beginning that would unleash unprecedented opportunities for Israelis, Palestinians and peoples throughout the region” (Netanyahu); and about “not wanting any blood to be shed – one drop of blood from the Israelis or the Palestinians” (Abbas).

Nice sentiments, at times even soaring rhetoric, but it all sounded so tired, so worn, so familiar – even so predictable. Close your eyes and this could have been the White House lawn in 1993, or Wye Plantation in 1998, or Camp David in 2000, or Aqaba in 2003, or Annapolis in 2007.

The same types of speeches, the same types of promises, the same hopes.

Even, to a large degree, the same basic cast of characters – Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, Abdullah have all participated in similar moments. Only the identity of the US president continues to change.

“Politics is theater,” Netanyahu remarked en route to Washington from Tel Aviv on Tuesday (noting as well – in a reference to the brouhaha this week over the boycott of Ariel by a group of actors, directors and playwrights – that theater is also politics).

But this week’s “drama” in Washington was not that the actors met, or that they shared a stage, or that they delivered nice monologues. In fact, there was – despite the careful American staging – no true drama here.

THE TRUE DRAMA will come if something, anything, emerges from this particular performance, one that began with rock-bottom expectations from the critics, and which – because of the murderous attacks in Israel that accompanied “opening night” – at times seemed surreal. Hearing paeans to peace on a day in which the parents of six children, a pregnant mother and an innocent man were buried after being gunned down on a road is nothing if not the incongruous juxtaposition that defines the surreal.

To borrow from a tired phrase having to do with war – that you should not fight the next war based on the last war’s tactics – Netanyahu came here with a clear message that you also shouldn’t pursue peace using the failed approaches of the past.

“We left Lebanon, we got terror,” he said in the East Room, pausing for emphasis. “We left Gaza, we got terror.

We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel, and also aimed at everyone sitting here on this stage.”

What Netanyahu made clear in that short paragraph, perhaps the the most telling and significant line of any of his public remarks, what is known in journalism as the “nut graph,” is that the lesson of the past bitter “peacemaking” experiences is not that further land should not be conceded, as many in his own party and coalition would argue, but that it needs to be conceded differently.

And now Netanyahu’s task will be twofold – first to convince Abbas and the Arab world that things ought to be done differently, because previous attempts didn’t work. And then to convince the Israeli public that they can be done differently.

Mubarak made clear in his speech that Netanyahu’s first task – convincing the Arabs that things ought to be done differently – won’t be easy, since he said that the current talks needed to stand on the shoulders of previous agreements, or near agreements, reached by Israel and the Palestinians, whether implemented or not.

Netanyahu would politely demur. His opposition to starting the current talks from the point where the previous round between his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas ended stems not only from opposition to the far-reaching concessions that Olmert made, and Abbas did not embrace, but also from the fact that Netanyahu does not want to be bound by certain givens that have become accepted as Mideast peacemaking gospel over the years.

For instance, whereas Olmert and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, spoke of the need to uproot settlements in any agreement (and Sharon uprooted some even in the absence of an agreement), Netanyahu has never publicly gone on record with similar sentiments. Conceding land, in his mind, does not necessarily mean forcibly uprooting settlements.

At least not in the near future.

At least, he has never publicly said so.

Indeed, Netanyahu often notes what a small percentage of West Bank land the actual built-up area of the settlements takes up. And one of his advisers said in the past that a litmus test of whether the Palestinians will be able to live peacefully next to Jews is whether they will allow Jews to live among them.

During his stay in Washington, when asked at one point whether in his mind a final agreement would necessitate removing settlements, Netanyahu said that while he was not willing to say what the final framework would look like, there was a need for “new conceptions.”

The models “used in the past have not proven themselves,” he said, neither in the security sphere nor with regard to settlements. In other words, Israel uprooted settlements in the past – disengagement from Gaza – but that did not exactly enhance its security.

The diplomatic process cannot go down the same tired roads of the past which did not prove themselves, Netanyahu said. Certain ideas that were seen as axiomatic need revision.

“We can’t continue as if nothing has happened,” he said, “as if things that were done over the last years don’t obligate a rethinking.” Including, he made clear, about everything that has to do with the settlements.

Netanyahu said he is often told about the need to think about “creative” solutions. “I am thinking about different things,” he said. “I am thinking differently.”

Which all may be well and true. But this particular performance is not a one-man show, and for this peacemaking play to be pulled off, for there truly to be drama and not just the recitation of lines, the Palestinians and the Arab world will necessarily have to think differently as well.

Act 1, scene 1, set the scene this week.

There will be a scene 2, but for there to be scenes or acts after that will depend on the creativity of the players. Previous performances by this troupe don’t give the audience much hope. Yet, great theater is full of surprises.

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