(photo credit: AP [file])
The location has already made history: Annapolis, Maryland, which this week plays host to the latest effort at Middle East peacemaking, is where the Treaty of Paris was ratified by Congress 224 years ago, formally ending the Revolutionary War, and where George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the American Revolutionary Army.
The date is historic, too: It happens to be 60 years to the week since the United Nations' General Assembly ratified the partition of Palestine into intended Jewish and Arab entities. Now, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are here to try to achieve the updated will of much of the international community - or, in the official language of the State Department, "to realize President Bush's vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security."
But if history is to be made this week, it certainly began with farce. Shortly before takeoff from Ben-Gurion Airport on Saturday night, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to brief the journalists flying out with him, he had no sooner opened his mouth than the El Al cabin service director, a Mr. Markovitz, unwittingly drowned him out over the loudspeaker system with a lengthy, high-volume welcome aboard. Olmert battled briefly on, but when Mr. Markovitz then cheerfully announced that we would now be shown a short film on aircraft safety, and that was combined with a reporter's question on a subject Olmert really didn't want to talk about - the teachers' strike - the prime minister cut short the conversation and headed back to the front of the plane.
Still, between the interruptions, he had managed to convey his key hope for the Annapolis talks, that they would enable "the launch of serious negotiations, on all the core issues, which will lead to a solution of two national homes for two peoples." Annapolis was conceived in a spirit of absurdly exaggerated ambition, initially envisaged as some kind of culmination to an accelerated process of Israeli-Palestinian contacts in recent weeks that, it was anticipated, would have achieved substantive progress on the key core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees.
But so adroitly have the Americans and their guests backtracked from those unrealistic goals, so dramatically have they managed to lower expectations, that the very fact that Israel and the Palestinians are to be joined at this conference by plentiful Arab representation, including the Saudi foreign minister and, the final prize, a Syrian government representative, is starting to give the gathering some credibility.
During her own, rather longer, in-flight briefing to the press, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told The Jerusalem Post that "one of the lessons learned" from the failure of the Camp David "final-status" talks seven years ago was that "there is not a Palestinian leader in the world" who could make a deal with Israel unless the Arab world was standing firmly by his side.
And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has evidently "delivered" that potential supporting cast. The "picture of the week," Livni predicted, would be that of those Arab players who have chosen by their presence here to signal their support for a new effort at peacemaking, contrasted with the rejectionists of Iran, Hizbullah and the terrorist organizations.
Still consistently downplaying Annapolis, Livni insisted that the sessions this week would be "declarative" rather than substantive - with no discussions held, much less decisions taken. Real talks would begin in earnest only after Annapolis, she said, speaking of frequent serious meetings rather than marathon, non-stop negotiations.
But the various "declarative" positions set out here will be immensely significant, nonetheless. The Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, told the Post on Sunday that his expectation was that Annapolis would produce an agreed timetable for a final-status accord. The widespread participation was positive, he said, "but what we are looking at is, 'When are we going to finish this?'" He said everybody knew the parameters of an accord, and the question was whether there was sufficient political will to reach and implement it. "The objective clearly is to finish next year," he said, "and I firmly think that if there are serious negotiations it shouldn't even take that long." The most critical "declarative" position to be set out here, therefore, will presumably be that of President George Bush, whose dwindling time in office essentially sets the time frame for this new effort.
Saturday's Washington Post tried to gauge how Bush would steer things, noting that the new active role he was set to play here this week "is notable for a president who has never visited Israel while in office, who has made only one trip to Egypt and Jordan to promote peace efforts, and who has left the task of relaunching the peace process largely in the hands of his secretary of state."
The paper quoted Rice declaring this week that she aims to finalize a peace deal before the end of the Bush presidency, and stressing that she wouldn't be engaged on this new diplomacy if Bush was not "deeply committed to it." But it also assessed that Bush would not attempt to impose a settlement on the sides and asserted that he was personally skeptical about the Palestinians' readiness to make the "the compromises necessary for a peace deal."
Either way, much will plainly depend on what Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been and will be telling their administration counterparts.
The Washington Post's analysis concluded with a senior administration official stating that this Israeli government trusts this president, "and they don't know who will followâ€¦ [So] if they're going to do something that involves some risk - and I think they view it as risk - they've got to do it with this man in the White House."
El Al's Mr. Markovitz may have curtailed him on Saturday night. But neither Olmert nor Livni have said anything in the run-up to Annapolis that would contradict that assessment.
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