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(photo credit: AP [file])
This week, for the first time, word began filtering out that the US was starting to lean on Israel to take some steps to ensure a successful meeting at Annapolis.
The US, according to diplomatic officials, sent a clear message that Washington has spent a great deal of time, energy and political capital on this event, and wants to make sure it succeeds. The message to Jerusalem was that Israel would have to start evacuating settlement outposts, obligations spelled out under the road map, if it expected the Palestinians to fulfill their own road map obligations.
With US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to arrive on Saturday night for her eighth visit this year, and the looming advance of the end of fall - the date by which the Americans have said the long-discussed Annapolis meeting would be held - crunch time is fast approaching.
And, as it approaches, Israelis should buck up for a degree of pressure from Washington that hasn't been felt for a long time.
Because while the Annapolis meeting is, on the surface, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and President George W. Bush's efforts in his last year in office to put his two-state vision on track, it is not solely - or even primarily - about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also about American needs, and American interests in the Middle East.
With the US experiment in Middle East democracy-building not exactly a resounding success, its eyes now are set on creating an arc of moderate Arab regimes, from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, to act as a bulwark, when it withdraws from Iraq, against Iran and marching Shi'ite extremism.
The two major issues concerning the US in the region right now are Iraq and Iran - not necessarily in that order - and then Israel.
When Bush first broached the idea of a Mideast meeting in July, he seemed to be wagering that the "moderate" Arab countries - like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco - would jump at the opportunity to attend and give a lending hand, if not out of a recognition that Israel was an established entity, then at least from their own domestic considerations. And these considerations were simple: a realization by these regimes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fed the extremists in their own midst, and that it was in their own interest to deprive the extremists of this "nutrition."
The idea was that with Iran going after nukes, and terrorism and global jihad knocking at their own door, these moderate regimes would finally be willing to come out of the closet and give legitimacy to Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
But the moderate states did not jump on the bandwagon, partly because of concern about how attendance at the conference, which would be interpreted as endorsing Israel's right to exist, will be taken by the masses.
Now, just weeks prior to one of the dates being bandied about for this meeting, November 26, it is still not clear whether Saudi Arabia - a key in making Annapolis a success because of its unique standing in the Arab world - will even attend.
Hence the pressure on Israel from Washington. The Bush Administration simply cannot afford another Mideast failure.
If the US fails to pull off the Annapolis meeting, the ripple effects will extend to Iran. It will, first and foremost, be an indication that the Iranians now have more pull in the region then the US, because the Iranians are doing whatever they can to throttle the meeting.
Interestingly enough, as much as Washington is antipathetic toward Syria, it needs Syria in Annapolis because having it there would send a strong message to Iran. Syria is a test, and whether it can be lured to the conference will be an indication of whether it can be lured out of the Iranian orbit, or whether it is locked in with Teheran.
But part of the bait to lure Syria to the conference would obviously be something that Israel would be expected to pay - a willingness to talk about the Golan Heights. Israel will also be asked to pay for the bait needed to lure a reluctant Saudi Arabia to the table as well.
If the US cannot get Israel and the Palestinians at Annapolis to agree on a paper that will be endorsed by the moderate Arab world, then the Saudis won't come, and the Iranians - who oppose the conference - will emerge as the winners. Surely not a prospect Israel relishes.
But if the Saudis do show up at Annapolis, and if the Syrians decide to come as well, Israel will be expected to pay the price for getting them there. And that price will be paid to a Palestinian leader, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who represents - at best - only half the Palestinians.
As Rice comes to shepherd Israel and the Palestinians down the final stretch toward Annapolis, neither option looks overly appealing.