Olmert Abbas 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The US-sponsored Middle East peace conference, widely expected to take place late next month, may be postponed, a State Department official accompanying US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly said Sunday night, giving a good indication of just how far the two sides are from agreeing on a document to be submitted to the meeting.
If the official's statement was meant merely as a description of reality, then it was duly noted. But if it was meant as a threat, it is not exactly clear whom it was designed to intimidate.
Neither Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would shed any tears were the meeting - which the Americans have only said would take place this fall, but which the press has said will convene at the end of November - postponed.
There is nothing magic, as far as either the Israelis or Palestinians are concerned, about the end of November.
Indeed, Olmert might even welcome a postponement. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's announcement Sunday night that the prime minister will face a third criminal investigation makes him look - in the eyes of the international community, especially the Arab world - like a particularly weak leader with a precarious hold on his position.
And it is never good to go into any sort of negotiations, or pre-negotiations, looking weak.
The Palestinians and the Arabs at the Annapolis meeting could interpret Olmert's weakness in one of two ways. They may think that as a result of his situation, either he will come willing to make far-reaching concessions in the belief that a breakthrough on the diplomatic front would improve his domestic standing, or they could think he is so weak politically that even if he does make far-reaching concessions, he will not have the political capital to implement any of them.
Either way, a postponement of a few weeks - to see how things are going in the investigations and to try to shore up his coalition - could very much work in Olmert's favor.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Abbas increasingly sounds like a man who feels he wins whether the conference is held in November or not.
If the meeting is held, regardless of the joint document, it will be a stepping stone to final-status negotiations and a short cut around the road map.
But in Abbas's eyes, it is also not the end of the world if the meeting is postponed, since he could then tell his people that this is proof that Fatah - no less than his arch rival Hamas - refuses to budge on key Palestinian principles.
Actually, the party most likely to be hurt from a postponement would be the US. The irony here is that the US administration has been very careful about not setting a date for the conference, saying only it would take place in the fall, and fall isn't over officially until December 21.
So how can a meeting be postponed if its date was never officially set? But this is splitting hairs.
The inability of the sides to meet by the end of November, despite Rice's best efforts, will be widely perceived as a failure for Rice and the Bush administration.
And if the administration cannot even get parties like Israel and the Palestinians to do its bidding - two parties heavily dependent on the US - then how can it expect to do anything with Iraq, Iran and Syria?
While a postponement might not be a disaster for Israel or the PA, cancellation of the conference would be a different story altogether.
Cancellation of the meeting would signal that Iran and its proxies Hizbullah and Hamas - who are all adamantly opposed to the gathering - are calling the shots. And that is not a message that either the US, Israel or the Palestinian Authority is interested in sending.â€¢
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