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Diplomats, politicians and - oh, no - press

The Baltimore Sun

This unassuming waterfront town is a centuries-old hand at hosting momentous events: the formal end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington ceding military authority to civilian rule, Teddy Roosevelt greeting a French fleet that brought John Paul Jones' remains.

Then again, it doesn't take more than a boat show in October or a Navy football game to turn Maryland's quaint capital into a miserable parking lot.

So Annapolis reacted with both pride and a touch of nervousness yesterday to news that the U.S. Naval Academy might be the site of a Mideast peace conference -- and the attendant media hordes -- in November.

Washington's resignation of his military commission during the nascent days of the new republic makes the city a particularly apt backdrop for another attempt at Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said:

"There is no more appropriate place for there to be a peace conference between two warring parties than at the place where Washington said these military issues really need to be resolved and handled by the civil authority."

"I think it's a natural fit," said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "Remember, we were once the capital of the United States."

Bush administration officials said yesterday that it was likely Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would meet with officials from neighboring Arab states at the Naval Academy in November for a conference intended to build momentum toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

That was news to several highly placed Navy officials at the Pentagon and academy, who said they hadn't heard a word about the plans. It was also news to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who would like to convene a special session of the General Assembly that month to push for legislative proposals to resolve a looming budget crisis.

No dates for the international meeting were reported yesterday, but if it and the Assembly's special session were to overlap, "I think we could probably do both," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "We'd be doing our thing, while the federal government would be doing theirs."

Chuck Weikel, the parking and transportation coordinator in Annapolis, said having the Assembly session and the international meeting at the same time would be "a perfect storm."

"There's not enough parking for a peace conference, so we'll have to continue to have war," he quipped.

But he believed the city could accommodate both events because of the parking capacity on Naval Academy grounds and at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where most tourists park on weekdays before taking a $5 bus to the campus.

"The biggest impact would be from the press, and I'm not sure how we would deal with that in the context of satellite trucks and things like that," Weikel said. "More than likely, the Naval Academy would have to think that through, because there's not enough room on our city streets for dozens of satellite trucks."

Connie Del Signore, chief executive officer of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, said November might be the best month for such a meeting, when the city's hotels, which have about 2,500 rooms, are at about 60 percent capacity. A four-star Westin recently opened downtown.

The city is not unaccustomed to providing security for dignitaries. Each year, either the president, vice president, secretary of defense or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks at Naval Academy graduation. And in 2005, President Bush initiated a series of speeches in Annapolis about the Iraq war, hoping to boost flagging public support for the conflict.

Annapolis police spokesman Kevin Freeman said the department frequently joins Secret Service and Defense Department security details for those events and would be prepared to do so again, although he wasn't aware of the November plans either.

When Annapolis was the nation's capital from 1783 to 1784, the Continental Congress ratified in the current State House the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War.

While the Naval Academy frequently hosts top military officials from other countries, and has housed heads of state in past decades in the superintendent's residence, a Middle East gathering on this scale would exceed anything in the institution's 162-year history, said Jim Cheevers, the Naval Academy historian.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt and a gaggle of Cabinet members, members of Congress and officials from the French and American navies hosted one of the grandest events in the city's past: John Paul Jones' state funeral. The remains of the Revolutionary War hero had been dug up in Paris and brought into the Chesapeake by the French.

Annapolis began buzzing as word of the conference spread.

Some Annapolis residents expressed mixed feelings, mindful of the inevitable congestion that would accompany intense security, international media and gawkers -- maybe even scores of lawmakers and lobbyists, if the special legislative session coincides.

"The time between the boat shows and the General Assembly is the one time of the year that the city is mainly for locals," said Anne Arundel County Councilman Josh Cohen, who lives in Annapolis. "Annapolitans love those two windows of quiet, but if Annapolis can play a role ... I think that's wonderful."

Rusty Romo, owner of the white-tablecloth Harry Browne's Restaurant, said a major event might keep tourists and diners away because of concerns about security and traffic, "but it could also have a great effect on us."

With 30 years of experience, Romo has served heads of state and feuding politicians, but "certainly not a Mideast peace conference," he said.

If the Israeli and Palestinian delegations got a hankering for pistachio-crusted rack of lamb at the same time, "I would imagine it's a little tenser than having [House Speaker] Mike Busch and [former Governor] Bob Ehrlich at the same table together," he said.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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