(photo credit: AP)
Whatever happens at the Annapolis conference this week, there is no longer any question that the ground is moving beneath the feet of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Literally, that is. The second minor earthquake to shake Israel and the West Bank in the past week struck late Friday night; at 4.2 on the Richter scale, it was just big enough to shake up people in their beds without causing any damage.
Both supporters and opponents of recent developments in the peace process, at least those of a superstitious bent, will no doubt discern some divine meaning in these seismic phenomena.
"A message telling the Jews not to divide up the land? On the other hand, a major earthquake would very much divide up this land, so perhaps the message is 'Divide it fairly or I'll do it for you,'" writes 'Observer from Palestine' in one of the several talk-backs The Jerusalem Post's web edition has received on this theme.
Whatever the case, in the last few days there have also been some distinct geo-political tremors throughout the region, emanating from the new epicenter created by the Annapolis conference. The question here, just as with the geological disturbances, is whether these vibrations are isolated incidents that will leave no lasting change on the diplomatic landscape, or are signs of a major shake-up in the near future.
At any rate, with Friday's unprecedented decision by the Arab League to send high-level diplomatic representation to Annapolis - especially from Saudi Arabia - it is no longer possible to dismiss the event as simply a meaningless photo-op. Sometimes in diplomacy even just showing up for a meeting has significance, and that is certainly the case here.
That includes, at the very least, setting precedent. For example, the fact that Yitzhak Shamir allowed his hard-line Likud government to sit opposite a Palestinian delegation taking direct orders from Yasser Arafat at the 1991 Madrid conference, even though nothing new was agreed upon there, no doubt opened a path that later widened into the road to the Oslo process.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal has already declared that Israelis shouldn't be expecting any handshakes from him at Annapolis.
But the very fact of his attendance at the event will change its dynamic.
The so-called Arab Peace Plan, introduced by Saudi monarch King Abdullah in 2002 calling for complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines in return for full relations with the Arab League states, will now likely be put on the table by its originator before the Israeli leadership. And conversely, the Arab League representation will have to sit still for at least a few minutes when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presents the Israeli demand for a stake in parts of Jerusalem (including the holy places) and elsewhere over those lines, and the insistence that this country be recognized as a "Jewish state" - a concept Israel's Arab neighbors have not come to terms with 60 years after the UN decision authorizing the creation of such a nation.
All this is known in advance, and the failure (thus far) of Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to craft a joint declaration of principles prior to the conference means that any new negotiating ground being broken in Annapolis itself is unlikely. It is the aftershocks that now appear more likely to have some impact, rather than the event itself.
The possible exception to that scenario has an epicenter about 30 miles to the west of Annapolis, in Washington DC: the White House. The starting positions of all the participants are clearly known, with the possible exception of the Bush administration. For George W. Bush to have convened such an event in his own backyard; to have allowed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to invest so much time and energy in putting it together; and to have committed himself to personally open it, is such a major break with the way the US president has conducted diplomacy in the past seven years, it is not surprising that political observers are wondering whether it is Washington that has seriously shifted ground in recent months.
In a position paper released last week by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, former Israeli ambassador to the UN (and advisor to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu) Dore Gold expresses concern that this is indeed the case.
Gold argues that recent comments by Rice indicate that Bush may be backtracking on assurances he made to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in his letter of April 14, 2004, that Washington accepts Jerusalem's position that it will not have to return to the '67 lines as part of a final-status agreement.
"There is a serious question about the exact standing of the Bush Letter on the eve of Annapolis," asserts Gold. "Even if the US does not issue its own statement in lieu of the Joint Statement, a revised US position could come in the form of a presidential address, or even private communications from Washington to Arab capitals that erode the Bush Letter and empty it of much of its original content."
Whether this is really so would depend on knowing the exact nature of the conversation that Bush reportedly had with King Abdullah this week, that convinced him to have the Saudis attend Annapolis. Some clarification may come when the US president makes his opening address at the conference, which is why the Washington Post's main Annapolis story this weekend was headlined "Eyes will be on Bush at talks on Mideast."
The White House would surely prefer those eyes were focused more on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. But while the ground really did shake beneath the feet of Israelis and Arabs this week, it was the Americans who moved heaven and earth to get almost all the region's leaders to Annapolis - and it is still only them who have the influence to really shake things up in the peace process.
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