Protocol at the dinner table

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The World's Carol Hills reports on how the act of breaking bread together can help a tough negotiation process.

MARCO WERMAN: So how do you do the seemingly impossible? Getting Arab and Israeli leaders excited about a peace plan? Well, how about starting with a meal. Break bread together, have a chat, tell some jokes maybe. That's the idea behind this evening's dinner at the White House with four Middle East leaders. The World's Carol Hills has more.

CAROL HILLS: The idea of starting out a renewed effort toward Aram Israeli peace around the dinner table is calculated. It always has been. Ask Aaron David Miller. He served six Secretaries of State as an advisor on Arab Israeli negotiations.

AARON DAVID MILLER: This will be formal informality in the sense that in the Middle East, as in many other areas of the world, personalities are everything. And food and meals are often used in any number of occasions to create a level of informality that can enhance confidence.

HILLS: Yes, but will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas actually talk to each other or just eat a good meal and mutter through their interpreters and handlers?

MILLER: No, they will not talk through handlers, through seconds, through intermediaries. This is a leader's meeting. It's designed to create some measure of top-down confidence for the negotiations that are going to take place.

HILLS: Aaron David Miller says the Middle East leaders at tonight's dinner, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah are no strangers. The Middle East peace process has dragged on for decades and these gentlemen know each other.

MILLER: You've got five guys who are, frankly, quite adept at small talk as well as being extremely clever and witty. There is likely to be an enormous amount of laughter. I think the degree of informality and, I don't know I would describe it, camaraderie, that if in fact you had a chance to witness this would probably be quite stunning.

HILLS: Martin Indyk was assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration. He says if history is any guide, there's bound to be lots of jokes. He says Middle Easterners, especially Egyptians, are big on joking.

MARTIN INDYK: Yes, they like to joke around. And everybody seems to appreciate it. There was an Israeli negotiator during my time in ?90s who was famous for his jokes. And the Arabs loved him for that reason. Even though he was an incredible hardliner in the negotiations.

HILLS: But the jocularity is part performance. It masks the very serious tensions under the surface. Martin Indyk says the chemistry between Benjamin Netanyahu and all of the assembled Arab leaders has been pretty bad over the years, though recently that's started to change.

INDYK: Lately, Netanyahu as Prime Minister second time around paid a lot of attention to Mubarak. Consulted with him regularly, visiting him regularly. And Mubarak is beginning to warm to him and even speak on his behalf to others like Abu Mazen.

HILLS: Abu Mazen, or Mahmoud Abbas, Indyk says, is a congenial fellow who gets along with everyone. Everyone at the table anyway, as opposed to many of his fellow Palestinians, because he said from the beginning that the Palestinians must engage with Israel. Egyptian Hosni Mubarak may be less lively tonight. He's hard of hearing and his health is not exactly tip-top. Both Indyk and Miller predict one possibly U-shaped dinner table tonight with President Obama at the head, flanked by Netanyahu and Abbas and the other guests. And also there may be possible bi-lats and tri-lats. That's diplo speak for President Obama taking one leader or the other into a side room for a private chat. For The World, I'm Carol Hills.