The diplomatic choreography for Washington's miracle Middle East moment went into high gear yesterday--a dance designed to avert awkward scenarios and unwanted glitches as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak prepares to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa.

Before Charaa arrived last night, the Syrian delegation checked out of the hotel where it had planned to stay, close to Blair House where the talks will take place today and Thursday. When asked to confirm whether the Syrian team was arriving at the hotel--the Madison--a State Department spokesman said yesterday: "No. They checked out. Why? Because the entire Israeli press is staying there."

At least 34 Israeli journalists are staying at the Madison to cover the landmark encounters between Charaa and Barak and their delegations. Although a news conference that would include Israeli journalists is envisioned by Charaa and his advisers, previous brushes between Charaa and the Israeli media have been far from peace-enhancing.

The talks are the first Syrian-Israeli discussions in four years and the first at such a senior level. Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, said in a report from Damascus yesterday that Charaa would avoid shaking hands with Barak, while the Americans and Israelis were eager that such a symbolic gesture of entente and civility occur.

Al Hayat also quoted Syrian officials as saying the meeting was not intended as a media event, but for Syrian negotiators to "delve into the essence of the talks to make progress in the shortest time possible." Handshake or no handshake, as they say here, location is everything.

Ensconced in daylong meetings at the State Department, peacemakers have been going over the fine print of border concerns, early-warning systems and diplomatic normalization, hoping that the Washington setting would breathe good diplomatic karma into the talks.

Key atmospherics for the talks include the presence of President Clinton across the street from Blair House, the intimacy of artfully decorated rooms and narrow hallways at the historic guest house and the security cordon around the building. "Being so close to the White House, the president can pop over any time to foster exchange and contact," one official said. "The mood at the venue of the talks, the seclusion and the physical circumstances are important. They can contribute meaningfully to the substance of reaching an understanding on crucial issues." Inshallah--God willing.

A manager at the Madison said that bookings for the Syrians were made through a third party and that no reason was given for the change of plans. U.S. officials remained tight-lipped about where the Syrians would spend the night, but late last night it was revealed that they were staying at the Washington Hilton. The Israeli team is staying at the Mayflower.

To Meet or Not to Meet?

A group of Iranian clerics and religious scholars was all set to come here to attend a Dec. 2 conference at Georgetown University's Center of Muslim-Christian Understanding. When they were fingerprinted on Nov. 30 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and then mocked by airport officials when they signaled they had to pray, they took offense and went home. The clergymen in question represent right-wing factions that have been hectoring Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi because of his reformist bent and his courting of the West. The Iranian government has filed a protest.

In an intriguing twist, U.S.-based Iranian sources said the group had planned to meet with unidentified members of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign. The sources, who are in close contact with Tehran, said the planned meeting was described by a senior adviser to Ataollah Mohajerani, Iran's minister of Islamic guidance.

Bush's foreign policy honcho at Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice, reached by telephone, said she hadn't heard of such a planned meeting and that the campaign had not authorized one.

"I would find it very odd if I were not aware of something the Bush campaign had arranged," Rice said. "I am the foreign policy adviser; I know nothing of it. The campaign on behalf of Gov. Bush has not authorized something like this. The people who would have had the authority to authorize something like this for the campaign or on his behalf have not."

Sources in Tehran said the mullahs who reportedly intended to meet with Bush's people were Hojatoleslam Akbar Sadeqi, Hojatoleslam Abdolhassan Haqqani, Mahmoud Taghizadeh, Ahmed Waeghi, Hassan Rahimpour and Sadeq Larijani. Iranian sources described them as hard-liners. What could have been their motive? Recently, Nateq Nouri, speaker of Iran's majlis, or legislature, expressed fears of a strong showing in February elections by reformists allied with Khatemi and warned of a "parliamentary coup." Perhaps even tough-minded mullahs want to be in the center at election time.