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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the hours before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement this week that the Annapolis summit would be held in late November, two Kadima MKs sat before a map of the US pointing at all the places they'd rather be than in Maryland.
"They couldn't choose a place with a better name? Who has even heard of the place?" asked one, while the other huddled over a close-up of New England trying to figure out which state he should be searching.
Questions about the physical whereabouts of Annapolis gave way to larger questions, however, when Olmert revealed that the summit would occur in less than three weeks.
As the day of the summit rapidly approaches, key figures in Olmert's government have made increasingly contradictory statements over which issues Israel would raise at the negotiating table, or who would be invited to sit at it. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed his strong support for including Syria in the talks, while days earlier Kadima MKs told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "by no means" should Syria be allowed to participate.
Meanwhile, the issues to be discussed have fallen under the catchall banner of a "return to the road map."
However, each time Olmert has hinted at individual items that might fall under that banner - such as ceding parts of Jerusalem - the backlash has tottered his already wobbly coalition.
Right-wing partners Shas and Israel Beiteinu have already drawn up their list of red lines that they don't want crossed, including no discussion of Jerusalem.
Both parties have joined a new union created by opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu entitled the Forum for a United Jerusalem, leaving many wondering if their alliance isn't foreshadowing a future coalition they hope to build.
"The natural home of these parties is with the Likud," said Netanyahu on Monday. "They will realize, hopefully before it is too late, that these peace talks do not represent them or their interests."
Leaders from Israel Beiteinu and Shas have repeatedly met to discuss their opposition to Annapolis, but party officials state that neither is quite ready to leave the coalition. "They both fear what will happen when they jump into the waiting arms of Netanyahu. Will he swallow them whole?" commented one Shas official.
Since the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu has enjoyed consistently high standing in the polls, leaving other right-wing parties fearful that he might pull votes away from their constituency on Election Day.
ON THE other side of Olmert's coalition, Labor MKs are growing increasingly critical of their chairman, Barak, for not pulling the talks further to the left. MKs Ephraim Sneh and Amir Peretz are leading a group of increasingly vocal MKs who are angry at Barak for not trying to push Olmert toward a more liberal agenda.
"Labor should take no part in this farce," said MK Ophir Paz-Pines, a long-time associate of Barak's. "Real peace interests are not being represented."
As the coalition becomes increasingly polarized, Kadima officials have begun preparing the groundwork for possible early elections.
While most of Kadima was in a faction meeting, Vice Premier Haim Ramon appeared on the Knesset Channel on Monday to suggest that Olmert would hold a national referendum - or new elections - before ratifying any agreement reached with the Palestinians at Annapolis.
"Olmert is aware that Annapolis might be the final blow to his coalition. But he would rather be forced out of office as a hero pursuing peace, than because of the Winograd Commission or some police investigation into shady business deals," said a Meretz MK. "The public won't buy his tricks, though. They know that this attempt at peace isn't being made with real conviction."
A VISIT by US lawmakers this week echoed the many doubts surrounding Annapolis. Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, told The Jerusalem Post that the US had not done the necessary legwork to ensure the summit's success.
"It has been planned poorly," said Ackerman. "They should have checked the guest list before sending the invitations."
The invitations, which Olmert said would be sent in the coming week, are only likely to spur the coalition woes surrounding the summit, leaving many to wonder about the RSVPs.