In Mideast peace efforts, symbolism can be just as important as substance

JERUSALEM (AP) — In less than a month, globe-trotting Mideast peace makers have traveled from the regal grounds of the White House to the calm shores of the Red Sea and the holy city of Jerusalem in a series of carefully choreographed meetings rich in symbolism.

In Middle East peacemaking, symbolism is often just as important as substance. Each venue in the recently renewed talks, the first in nearly two years, has been carefully chosen — a set of gestures meant to send important messages to key constituencies.

Launched on the lawn of the White House on Sept. 2, the peace efforts moved this week to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Israeli prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and then to Jordan.

President Barack Obama has made Mideast peace a top priority in his foreign policy. Bringing the sides together at the White House after months of painstaking mediation underscored the personal commitment of the U.S. president to the peace process while giving him an important boost ahead of key midterm elections.

The high-profile stage of the White House also provided a bump to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It helped Netanyahu — widely seen as a hard-liner by the international community — portray himself as a peacemaker, and aided the embattled Abbas in shoring up his position at home.

But it was important to shift the talks quickly back to the Middle East.

All sides agreed to launch the latest round of negotiations in Egypt — a nod to the first Arab country to reach peace with Israel and a key moderating force in the region. Sharm el-Sheikh, a frequent site of Mideast summits, was a natural choice.

The summit at the Red Sea resort town, which was anchored by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a clear sign of appreciation for Egypt's 82-year-old leader, Hosni Mubarak, and gave Abbas an important "Arab" endorsement at a time when he has come under criticism for returning to the negotiating table.

"We appreciate very much the role of Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, in supporting the process of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Their providing a venue was a very tangible way of expressing support."

On Wednesday, the talks moved to Jerusalem — the epicenter of the conflict and potentially the thorniest stop on Clinton's sweep through the Middle East.

"This is a city that holds such deep meaning for Jews, Christians and Muslims," Clinton noted during an appearance with Israel's president, Shimon Peres.

Israel claims the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state. The eastern sector is home to key Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

The main event of the day — a meeting between Clinton, Netanyahu and Abbas — took place at Netanyahu's official residence. While the Israeli and Palestinian leaders warily shook hands, each took pains to put the other at ease.

Netanyahu, who only a year ago endorsed the idea of creating a Palestinian state, made sure to place a Palestinian flag alongside U.S. and Israeli flags at a joint appearance before their meeting — following a custom begun by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

Abbas, who visited Jerusalem many times for peace talks with Olmert, left a conciliatory note in the residence's guest book.

"Today I returned to this house after a long period of absence in order to continue talks and negotiations and with the hope of reaching eternal peace in the entire region and especially peace between Israel and the Palestinian people," he wrote.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said such interactions were valuable.

"What is important here is that people across the region see that the leaders are personally engaged and serious about resolving the core issues and reaching an agreement," he said. "The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu received President Abbas at his home today is an important gesture that underscores what he said in Washington -- they are partners in this effort."

In a gesture to the Palestinians, Clinton visited Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday before heading to neighboring Jordan to see King Abdullah II. Jordan, like Egypt, has a peace treaty with Israel and is a key U.S. ally.

Racking up frequent flier miles is nothing new in the world of Mideast peace efforts. Sharm el-Sheikh has been a frequent site for meetings, as has the White House. U.S. presidents have also chosen other locations — from Annapolis, Maryland, to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and most famously, the presidential retreat at Camp David — for high-level negotiations.

As the current talks proceed, most of the work is likely to take place in Jerusalem for logistical — not symbolic — reasons.

Jerusalem and Ramallah are just a half hour apart, and it is far easier for the Palestinian leader to enter Jerusalem than for Netanyahu to go to Ramallah, where he could face the threat of attacks and where local residents would likely bristle at the sight of Israeli security forces escorting their leader. Even so, Netanyahu has not ruled out a future meeting in Ramallah or elsewhere in the West Bank.

Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, said that the public meetings might serve the political needs of the American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But it is not a recipe for successful negotiations.

"If the sides were serious, they would have had discrete negotiations to agree on all of the issues. This is public diplomacy without real negotiations," he said.