ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (AFP) — In a hastily arranged conference here, it was only the little signs such as a pair of glasses perched on the president's nose which hinted at the tensions underlying the handshakes.
For US President George W. Bush rarely, if ever, steps out in front of the glare of the world's media with his reading glasses on.
Except on Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland, when having just intervened personally at the 11th minute to wrest a joint statement from Israeli and Palestinians, he had to cast vanity to the winds.
Bush learned from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, upon his arrival here, "that they were very close, but there were just some issues that still needed to be worked out. And the president helped finish, helped them resolve those differences," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
"Secretary Rice and her counterparts, the Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, stepped aside, worked on the language, and brought it back. And everyone agreed to it," said Perino.
"And the president said, 'Why don't I read this at the top of my speech?' And they all agreed," she said, confirming Bush was still wearing his reading glasses because there was no time to run the statement off in large print.
It was one of the signs in a day, more redolent with symbolism than substance, which revealed how deep run the scars of six decades of enmity between Israel and the Arab world.
It showed too just how chaotic the whole organization of the conference has been, even though the White House had apparently worked hard to ensure nothing would be left to chance. First announced in July, the State Department only confirmed the date of the meeting last week.
It was a major coup that the US administration, taking its most determined step yet into the stormy waters of Middle East diplomacy since Bush took office in 2001, managed to coax Saudi Arabia to sit at the same table as Israel to talk peace.
Yet, despite Bush's dramatic announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians were immediately to launch new talks, there was little concrete sign of any concessions by any of the parties to secure peace in the Middle East.
Perhaps it was more of a whiff of a sea change in the air in this historic seaport, which over two centuries ago played a key role in America's war of independence.
And on Tuesday, as probably in the past, when the delegates of enemy states addressed each other at the US Naval Academy here, once all outside prying eyes had been shooed away, no little gesture went unnoticed.
With no smiles but without trading any barbs either, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni faced leaders of Arab states to hash out their differences.
When she told Syria's deputy Foreign Minister Faycal Mekdad of the Jewish state's hopes to make peace with its northern neighbor, tensions visibly rose.
"Tzipi looked him in the eye, and he didn't turn his look away. That is already something," a senior member of the Israeli delegation present at the talks told AFP.
Sitting under a naval banner which cautioned delegates "don't give up the ship," Rice gave the floor one by one to the diplomats seated around a square table to make a speech.
"Every now and then someone makes a funny comment, and some people giggle quietly, but no-one dares repeat the joke," the diplomat said, during a break in proceedings.
Few moments however managed to break the cold diplomatic veneer which was reflected in Rice's business-like manner as she read a brief statement to close the eight-hour conference, and walked away without taking questions.
There was just a delicious moment of irony when one member of the Egyptian delegation grabbed a sandwich from the kosher table set up especially for the Israeli side, the Israeli diplomat recalled.
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