Behind the scenes at Annapolis

Some surprising handshakes, but some predictably hostile rhetoric, too.

annapolis table 248.88 ap (photo credit: )
annapolis table 248.88 ap
(photo credit: )
As expected, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, did not shake hands with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Tuesday's Annapolis summit. But Olmert did shake hands and "exchange pleasantries" with representatives from a number of states that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, including Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco and Pakistan. Apart from that, much of the rhetoric in Tuesday afternoon's closed session of the conference unfolded along predictable lines - predictably hostile to Israel in the cases of Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian delegate, Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad, delivered a strident and uncompromising speech saying that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan should not be considered a "painful compromise" since it was not Israel's land to begin with. Speaking at a workshop entitled "Towards a Comprehensive Middle East Peace," Mekdad said - according to Israeli officials who heard the speech - that Israel should return the Golan, and then Damascus would consider normalization of ties. No independent transcript of his comments was available. According to Israeli officials, Mekdad also called on Israel to leave the Shaba Farms/Mount Dov area. Ahead of the summit, Olmert had confirmed his readiness to open substantive peace talks with Syria, and pointedly recalled that three previous prime ministers had shown a readiness "to leave the entire Golan or the overwhelming proportion of it." In a briefing for Israeli journalists, the prime minister said his government had always made plain it would talk seriously with the Syrians if and when the circumstances were ripe, and that the Syrians knew this. Asked flatly whether he would trade the Golan for peace, Olmert said "that's an interesting question" and one that he would deal with "when the time comes." He named the three past prime ministers who had shown readiness for dramatic concessions on the Golan as Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu. "Let's not go into why [negotiations with Syria] didn't work [for those three]," he went on, and then did just that: It may have been that Barak was deterred, he mused, that Yitzhak Mordechai and Ariel Sharon blocked Netanyahu, and that for Rabin it just didn't pan out. "All three had their positions," he said. "All three could detail why they thought Israel should leave the entire Golan or the overwhelming proportion of it." As strident as Mekdad was in his comments at Annapolis, however, Lebanon's delegate, Minister of Culture Tarek Mitri, was even more so, saying that Israel needed to withdraw from not only Shaba Farms/Mount Dov, but also the rest of the village of Rajr and a new area that he claimed Israel was occupying near the Shaba Farms. "He sounded like a mouthpiece for Hizbullah propaganda," said one Israeli official, who said Mitri raised the issue of Lebanese prisoners, something that is always in Hizbullah's arsenal. In remarks released by Saudi officials, meanwhile, Faisal said at one of the conference's afternoon sessions that a great deal was riding on "the success or failure of this [Annapolis] undertaking." He said the Saudis came to Annapolis to "support the launching of serious and continuing talks" that would address all "core and final status issues." He said these talks needed to be followed by the launching of talks on the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese tracks. "It is absolutely necessary to establish an international follow-up mechanism that monitors progress in the negotiations among the parties, as well as the implementation of commitments made," he said. Faisal also said Israel must freeze all settlement activity, dismantle the settlement outposts, release prisoners, stop building the security barrier, remove Israeli checkpoints and lift the "siege imposed on the Palestinian people." While Faisal did not deal with the issue of normalizing ties with Israel in his speech, a Saudi diplomat who did brief non-Israeli reporters on Tuesday said Israel could forget about normalization before a peace was achieved with the Palestinians. "You can't have the fruits of peace before you have peace," the official said. According to one Israeli official, Faisal sounded an immediate sour note at the summit by declaring in the closed session that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their original homes. This demand was not specified in the public address by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, nor is it contained in the Arab League peace plan. It was impossible to independently verify the Israeli official's report, however, and there was no such comment in the remarks released by the Saudis themselves. In his speech to the afternoon session, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Israel's Arab neighbors "to seize the moment [for peacemaking]. And to our Palestinian neighbors, I say: Bid farewell to violence." Barak said security was crucial to the success of the new effort. "Violence and terror by extreme forces repeatedly rocked Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and continue to threaten it today. If those extreme forces are not or cannot be checked by Palestinian governmental forces, Israel has to check them in order to defend its citizens. This is neither in Israel's interest nor, I believe, in the Palestinians' interest and it is certainly not conducive to peace." Barak recalled leading the abortive Camp David process as prime minister seven years ago, and "our yearning and hope for peace did not wane ever since, despite waves of violence and terror... I therefore fully support this process and I will do my utmost to make it succeed." He said he believed "that we should go about peacemaking like we go about constructing a building, namely lay solid foundations first, before putting up the floors. This, in my view, is the true essence of capacity and institution building," and it was essential, he said, "in order to make any political horizon materialize." What were needed on the Palestinian side were "professional security forces capable of stamping out terrorism and lawlessness and dismantling terror infrastructure; functioning judiciary and legal systems; democratic institutions including a modern electoral system; economic development and growth engines; and a strong civil society." Barak met after the conference with US Secretary of State Robert Gates, for their second meeting in a month and a half. Barak's spokesman said that the two discussed a wide range of bilateral issues, including development of a multitiered antimissle system, which Barak has placed high atop the Defense Ministry's list of priorities. In her speech, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she was not seeking to argue with the Palestinians and the Arab world "over whose cause is more just." She stressed that she personally believed in the rights of the Jewish people "to the whole land." But what was needed now, she said, was "to think of another right - the right of our children to live in peace and mutual respect." Livni chided the Arab world for having rejected the initial division of mandatory Palestine into two states, and urged it to accept the two-state solution today. The Palestinian state, she stressed, should constitute the homeland to all the Palestinians people "wherever they are" - a position essentially rejecting any "right of return" to Israel - just as Israel had come to constitute a homeland for the entire Jewish nation. Making a success of the revived process, she went on, was dependent on the ability of the leaderships "to deal with extremists and terror" - a task in which, she said, the international community and especially the Islamic world had a central role to play. With Gaza controlled by a terror group, Hizbullah preventing stability in Lebanon and Iran threatening the entire region, "this is a decisive moment," she said. It was a moment to take sides, and it was no longer a case of Israel on one side and the Palestinians on the other. On one side, she said, were those who had come to Annapolis, and on the other were "those who did not come here... those who support terror and radical groups... those who invoke God to sow hatred and send children to be killed." Attending the conference, however, she stressed, was not sufficient. Peace was not just a matter of "an agreement in exchange for land. Peace means an end to incitement, an end to support for terror and concerted action against terror, an end to arms smuggling and the dismantling of terror hierarchies." And it was the job of leadership to confront those challenges, and galvanize public support for a change of direction. She also said all sides would benefit from normalized Israeli-Arab ties, and stressed how constructive a message a simple public handshake would send to the watching Arab public. If other Arab nations were essentially shaking Israel's hands, then Abbas and Fayaad would not be perceived as traitors for doing so. And support in a skeptical Israel, battered by terror, for a new way forward would grow too, she said. At one time Livni lifted her head up from her prepared speech, and said, "What would happen if they shook our hand?"