By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007 10:34 AM
When the cameras were turned off at the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis on Tuesday and the media were hustled out of the room, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni provided some of the most arresting moments of the private gathering of top international officials.
In her speech, Livni issued a challenge to the Arab representatives arrayed around the table, most of whose countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Sixteen of the 22 members of the Arab League had representatives in the room, including Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who said publicly before arriving that he would not shake the hand of any Israeli because to do so would be mere theatrics.
"Why doesn't anyone want to shake my hand?" Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister for European affairs, later recalled Livni asking. He said she also asked, "Why doesn't anyone want to be seen speaking to me?"
"She was saying 'Stop treating me as a pariah,' " Timmermans said. "They shun her like she is Count Dracula's younger sister."
The Israeli government this morning disputed Timmermans' account of Livni's speech, which was delivered in Hebrew and simultaneously translated for the conference participants. The Israeli Foreign Ministry's official translation quotes Livni as saying: "I have heard some say that Israel should not expect a handshake, and I will not ask for one. But let us imagine what might happen if the worst possible scenario occurs and there is a handshake between an Israeli leader and an Arab leader whose country has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and that handshake is broadcast around the world."
Such a gesture, she maintained, would send a message to Arab extremists that there is support for talks with Israel within the Arab world.
A Dutch embassy spokesman said Timmermans described the speech to The Washington Post as he recalled Livni delivering it, but will not dispute the official translation.
Rice, for her part, brought the meeting to close with highly personal and reflective comments that connected her childhood in the segregated South with the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians.
Both Timmermans and a U.S. official in the room said the gathering became deadly silent as Rice spoke, every eye riveted on her. Rice spoke without notes or script, and no transcript was made, but the two officials provided similar accounts of her remarks. The U.S. official asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss Rice's remarks.
Rice began by saying she did not want to draw historical parallels or be too self-reflective, but as a young girl she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., "at a time of separation and tension."
She noted that a local church was bombed by white separatists, killing four girls, including a classmate of hers.
"Like the Israelis, I know what it is like to go to sleep at night, not knowing if you will be bombed, of being afraid to be in your own neighborhood, of being afraid to go to your church," she said.
But, she added, as a black child in the South, being told she could not use certain water fountains or eat in certain restaurants, she also understood the feelings and emotions of the Palestinians.
"I know what it is like to hear to that you cannot go on a road or through a checkpoint because you are Palestinian," she said. "I understand the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness."
"There is pain on both sides," Rice concluded. "This has gone on too long."