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The Administration’s Rabbit Hunt

Last minute efforts by President Bush and Secretary Rice to get the parties at Annapolis to agree to a joint statement expose eleventh-hour comments by administration officials as some of the most transparent posterior-covering seen in a long time. From the time the conference was announced last summer, the creation of an agreement of principles to be signed by the parties prior to the conference was an absolute priority. It was the focus of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s eight trips to the region and the efforts of other American officials in between Rice’s visits.
For months, the form such an agreement would take was a primary source of contention between Prime Minister Olmert and P.A. Chairman ‘Abbas: the former wanted a vague description of goals and the latter demanding a comprehensive agreement with timetables for implementation attached. The Palestinians and Arab nations repeatedly threatened to boycott the summit altogether unless an agreement was in-hand first.
As it became increasingly apparent that there would be no meeting of the minds on the issue of a pre-conference agreement, attention turned to what would be presented at the parley’s conclusion. There, too, a joint agreement proved to be elusive, and plans morphed from a joint statement by Israel and the Palestinians to individual statements by the parties. That, too, seemed unobtainable. As the date of the conference neared, talk switched to the idea of having Secretary Rice make the closing statement on behalf of all parties. With a week remaining and no agreement in sight, the American administration began to spin an alternative scenario in which a pre-summit agreement or post-summit statement was no longer "necessary." To paraphrase the spin, Messrs. Olmert and ‘Abbas had now agreed to begin negotiations anew, thus obviating the necessity of a declaration summing up past agreements. 
But even as White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley reiterated the new line to reporters, saying an agreement, "is really no longer on the critical path to a successful conference," Rice was continuing her search for a rabbit to pull out of her hat at the President’s urging while the President himself was personally putting it to the principals to produce. She was meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmad Qurei’, still trying to squeeze out some form of agreement before the conference would get underway. The pressure was great enough to force a Monday night substitution on the Palestinian side: Sa’ib ‘Ariqat for Ahmad Qurei’ as team leader.
Covering the bets, Hadley was not through downsizing expectations. While the boss was squeezing even harder, Hadley was explaining that what had once been a venue for all parties in the region to tackle the issues and achieve results had, at last, become a "showcase what is an opportunity to move into a negotiating phase between Palestinians and Israelis."
Reports out of Annapolis say it was a mere half-hour before show-time that a joint statement was wrapped up. The Israeli and Palestinian reservations attest to the intensity of the pressure exerted by Team Bush.
The breakthrough came when the focus of the joint statement switched from being a recitation of mutual agreements on the issues at-hand to being a checklist of procedural protocols.
That was enough to best those who said nothing would be agreed upon at Annapolis. And to his credit, the President did, indeed hold his conference and it was attended by an unprecedented number of nations sitting – albeit not all interacting – with Israel. But what now remains in order for the President to forge something that resembles a legacy from Annapolis, is a self-inflicted deadline – and a short one, at that – in which to unravel generations of acrimony between parties who used Annapolis to underscore the depth of their differences. Administration officials have reportedly been asked to search their hats for more rabbits.
Michael Friedson is The Media Line’s executive editor.