Olmert, Abbas shake 224..
(photo credit: AP)
Making his way slowly from the Memorial Hall at the Annapolis Naval Academy after the speeches were over, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal happened to pass in front of this reporter.
"What did you think?" I asked him. "A good start?"
He kept on going, then halted, turned and said to me: "A good start, if it can lead to a good end."
It would be nice to be able to report that this constituted the first on-the-record conversation between a senior Saudi leader and an Israeli journalist, facilitated in an atmosphere transformed by the oratory that had preceded it, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's specific call for Arab normalization. But I am certain that Faisal had no idea which country's media I was representing in the ornate, high-ceilinged conference chamber, and that had he known, he would have carried on walking.
His comment, nonetheless, represented what seemed to be the prevailing view among the milling delegates as they left the room, en route to lunch and an afternoon of discussion in closed working groups. Annapolis had provided the anticipated optimistic start, albeit jeopardized behind the scenes by the kind of eleventh-hour Palestinian balking over the documentation that was previously associated largely with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's late predecessor.
Evidently neither overjoyed nor horrified by what they had heard from US President George W. Bush, Abbas and Olmert, those delegates whom I could see from my vantage point at the far end of the hall politely applauded each of them. Many, though not all, of the Arab delegates put in their earphones to hear Olmert's Hebrew speech in translation.
Faisal's pen was moving throughout the Israeli prime minister's address - though whether he was doodling or taking assiduous notes, I couldn't see. And he clapped clearly enough when it was over.
If, therefore, as Olmert has said, the "outstanding achievement" of Annapolis lies in the very fact of more than 20 Arab and Islamic nations turning up to lend their presence to a renewed diplomatic effort, and if, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said, the vital "picture of the week" is of these dignitaries essentially taking a public stand against Islamic extremism, then the grand gathering here plainly achieved its purpose. And if the attendance here of such countries as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria does, in fact, come to mark a turning point at which various regimes alter an ambivalent or plainly supportive attitude toward terrorism, Annapolis will have been significant indeed.
But as all the speakers themselves acknowledged, Tuesday's conference was only a start - the potential beginning of a road to a better future, an effort to defy the failures of past such efforts.
Only now, after Annapolis, does the genuine work begin.
Olmert made a notably magnanimous speech here, parts of which will infuriate his many critics on the political right, declaring that "I have no doubt that the reality created in our region in 1967 will change significantly."
Israeli leaders down the decades have rightly blamed the Palestinian leadership and the wider Arab world for the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in blighted refugee camps. But Olmert, strikingly, empathized with their suffering - their "wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation." He even said he knew that this "pain and deprivation is one of the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us."
This is a remarkable statement, and certainly comes closer than any other mainstream Israeli leader has ever moved toward showing understanding, though not justification, for the Palestinian argument about the roots of terrorism.
Abbas's speech was more resonant, more effectively structured, but markedly less empathetic in its thrust. On previous such occasions - and the history of failed peacemaking is littered with them - he has spoken movingly of Jewish suffering through the ages. Here, he was careful to specify all the Arab wrongs that needed addressing, including "ending the occupation in all the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, including east Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights and parts of Lebanon," and resolving "the plight of Palestinian refugees, which must be addressed holistically - that is, in its political, human and individual dimensions in accordance with UNGA resolution 194, as emphasized in the Arab Peace Initiative."
As Olmert did less exhaustively after him, Abbas was plainly inserting into his text the precedents and references and stresses that he would have wished to have included in the joint declaration.
Was Olmert's relative magnanimity and Abbas's relative lack of it a function of their respective domestic strength and weakness? Time will tell, but a robust, strong Abbas is central to the new peacemaking effort that is now to get under way.
Indeed, the bottom line of the process formally revived here at Annapolis is that it represents a case of going for broke - of seeking to achieve the hitherto unattainable final peace agreement within barely a year, before the Bush era is over, before the extremists have gathered further strength.
But though Olmert has agreed to sever the revived diplomatic effort from the ever-present security concerns, it is the reality on the ground that, as always, will determine the fate of this new effort. If intifada-style terrorism rages afresh, if Abbas proves incapable of marshalling the strength to thwart it, and if the wide Arab and international backing evidenced here is of irrelevant practical effect, then the eloquence of the speakers and the array of their supporters will count for nothing.
The Israeli public, asked by a leader in whom they have no great faith to make unprecedented concessions in the noble cause of comprehensive peace, simply will not do so in a climate of continued bloodshed and delegitimization. Indeed, opposition to even the more limited initial commitments, such as dismantling illegal outposts, will grow stronger. And both the Middle Eastern leaders who spoke here on Tuesday will fall.
Like the Saudi foreign minister said, "A good start - if it can lead to a good end." â€¢
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