Will Annapolis momentum spur a regional thaw?

Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas may have bridged the necessary gaps to issue a joint commitment to pursue peace, but their words in Annapolis revealed the substantial distance they have yet to travel.

President Bush announced the hoped-for agreement early in the day on Tuesday, saying the Israeli and Palestinian leaders had jointly pledged to endeavor to achieve peace by the end of 2008 under close U.S. supervision.

But the gaps at the U.S.-convened talks Tuesday in Annapolis, Md., were manifest in the precedents each side cited in their speeches.

Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said a peace agreement must be consistent with Resolution 194, the 1949 U.N. measure that called for a return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in the then-newly established Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said the agreement would be based in part on Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — a document that rejected any such return of refugees.

The two speeches differed in tone, as well. Olmert, while adamant in defending Israel’s right to security, was expansive toward the Palestinians, including the refugees and their descendants. Abbas, by contrast, acknowledged his obligation to combat terrorism in defensive, almost defiant terms.

Notably, Olmert’s speech marked the first time Israel formally committed to helping solve the Palestinian refugee problem and, extraordinarily, went so far as to implicitly acknowledge Palestinian suffering as a cause of terrorism.

“For dozens of years, many Palestinians have been living in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew, wallowing in poverty, neglect, alienation, bitterness and a deep, unrelenting sense of deprivation,” he said. “I know that this deprivation is one of the deepest foundations, which fomented the ethos of hatred towards us. We are not indifferent to this suffering. We are not oblivious to the tragedies you have experienced.”

Yet, while the Annapolis conference was meant to focus on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the attendance of Syria and Saudi Arabia also has raised questions about the prospects for peace between Israel and the wider Arab world.

Syria came up because, contrary to expectations, Damascus sent a delegate to Annapolis to talk about trading peace for the Golan Heights. And the attendance at Annapolis of all 22 Arab League member countries, led by the influential Saudis, suggested that normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world could be in the cards.

Israeli experts are divided over the prospects of reaching peace with Syria.

Some insist Damascus will never break with its Shi’ite sponsors in Tehran, which is a key condition for progress. Others argue there is a greater chance of achieving peace with the Syrians than with the Palestinians.

As for accommodation with the Arab world, the broad consensus is that peace with the Palestinians must come first.

Nevertheless, the fact that both the Syrians and Saudis came to Annapolis — Syria sent Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad and Saudi Arabia sent Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal — had immediate ramifications in the Middle East.

Their attendance demonstrated America’s ability to mobilize Arab moderates and underscored the growing isolation of Iran and its terrorist allies.

Whether or not Annapolis brings progress or not, it is already causing considerable alarm in Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made angry phone calls to Assad and Saudi King Abdullah urging them not to cooperate with the United States and Israel against Iran.

Iranian state media outlets were more blunt, warning that any Arab country that provides logistic help for a U.S. strike against Iran will be a legitimate target for Iranian retaliation.

Saudi policy has been driven for some time by the Iranian threat. The Saudis, who are Sunni Muslims, are terrified at the prospect of an Iranian move against their oil reserves or Iranian-sponsored terrorism destabilizing their kingdom. However, that does not mean the Saudis will push for wholesale normalization of ties with Israel, the regional counterpoint to Shi’ite-ruled Iran.

For the past several years, the Saudis have been key players in regional diplomacy. They fashioned the peace initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002, a rough outline that proposed normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli retreat to the pre-1967 borders.

The Saudis also mediated the now defunct power-sharing agreement in February between the moderate Palestinian Fatah faction headed by Abbas and the terrorist Hamas group.

But in both these cases, the Saudis’ aim was to help create Arab consensus and enhance ties with the United States as hedges against Iranian aggression, not to move toward normalization with Israel, said Saudi expert Joseph Kostiner of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

“Although the Saudis have a shared interest with Israel in curbing Iranian power, any contacts the two countries have on this will remain secret, precisely because the Saudis won’t jump the gun on normalization,” Kostiner told JTA.

Until Annapolis, only secret talks were held.

In September 2006, Olmert met covertly in Jordan with Saudi Arabia’s national security chief, Prince Bandar, presumably to discuss the Iranian threat. This encounter reportedly was followed by a string of lower-level secret contacts.

But there has been no sign of normalization.

On the contrary, in the run-up to Annapolis, al-Faisal declared there would not be so much as a handshake with Israeli leaders at the conference — so as not to give the Israelis “free normalization.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni argues for linkage between progress on the Palestinian front and normalization with the Arab world. In other words, every concession Israel makes to the Palestinians should be followed with an Arab gesture of normalization toward Israel.

This, she argues, would give Israel added incentive to move ahead.

But the Saudi message at Annapolis was clear: Normalization would not be an engine to drive the Israeli-Palestinian process. On the contrary, only the resolution of the core conflict would create conditions for normalization.

Still, there have been tacit understandings between Israel and the Saudis. For example, Israel raised no official objections to the U.S. plan to supply the Saudis with $20 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry over the coming decade. This was predicated on the understanding that the weapons were necessary for deterring Iranian aggression.