Capital awaits talks

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON-- --Annapolis will likely host an international Mideast peace conference this fall as President Bush revives a push for a Palestinian state, administration officials said yesterday.

The November meeting is expected to bring together Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, along with high-ranking officials of regional Arab nations, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presiding.

Bush's level of involvement has not been determined, and State Department officials could not confirm dates and participants. Still, the prospect of the high-level conference, expected to take place within the guarded confines of the U.S. Naval Academy, was greeted with anticipation by officials in the historic Maryland state capital.

"I think it's exciting and prestigious and appropriate for this very special city," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who had not received notification but who, like most city officials, was aware of news accounts.

"We have a great international reputation. And in the past, we've hosted events related to major change in this country," she said.

The meeting has been in the planning stages since the summer, when Bush announced that the U.S. would increase its involvement in the Mideast peace process after the takeover in the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the militant Islamic group.

"The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians and their neighbors in the region," Bush said in July. Rice and others "will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform," he said.

Like several presidents before him, Bush is looking to foster peace in the Middle East as his administration draws to a close. The desire for tranquillity between Israelis and Palestinians has grown as conditions in Iraq stagnate, providing an opportunity for greater influence by Iran and its allies.

News of the site location, first reported by the Associated Press, came as Rice and other State Department officials were in New York for the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. The session has provided days of face-to-face meetings among world leaders.

In choosing Annapolis, U.S. officials would bypass Maryland locations that are more familiar symbols of the successes and failures of creating peace in the Middle East. Camp David in Thurmont was the site of summits in 1978 and 2000, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed an accord at Wye River on the Eastern Shore in 1998.

By staying away from Camp David or Wye River, the administration might be trying to keep expectations for progress low, some officials said.

But by scheduling such a high-level gathering, the Bush administration will be under pressure to produce results, said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"Nobody wants what happened in 2000, when the failure of Camp David resulted in the second intifada," Abramson said, referring to a wave of suicide bombings and other violence that began that year, similar to an earlier violent uprising that started in the 1980s.

With weeks to go before this year's gathering, a huge gap still exists between Palestinian and Israeli expectations.

Abbas wants the conference to tackle sensitive issues of the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Olmert, however, remains reluctant to get bogged down on core issues that have derailed peace talks in the past. Instead, Olmert has said he would like the meeting to produce a general declaration of intent rather than a detailed agreement for a final peace settlement.

Also complicating any potential peace agreement is the deepening division between the West Bank, controlled by Abbas' moderate Fatah party, and the Gaza Strip, now controlled by Hamas. Hamas' leaders -- who oversee the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza -- will not take part in the conference.

Still, the U.S. is eager for the meeting to produce at least a meaningful outcome, if not a breakthrough.

The U.S. added several Arab neighbors to the guest list, this month including Syria and Saudi Arabia, two nations technically at war with Israel. The move is widely seen as a way to raise the profile of the meeting and bring more pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences.

With word of the conference leaking out before the State Department was prepared to discuss details, state, local and Naval Academy officials were caught off-guard, and were scrambling for information about what could be one of the most significant events in the academy's history.

Several highly placed Navy and school officials said they weren't aware of anyone at the academy who had been informed about the plans. Nor apparently had Gov. Martin O'Malley or the state's two U.S. senators, all Democrats.

This would be the second time the Bush administration has chosen the Naval Academy, about 30 miles from Washington, as the location of a major foreign policy push. Facing flagging public support for the Iraq war, the president initiated a series of speeches in Annapolis in November 2005, unveiling broad goals without specific benchmarks or time frames for reaching them.

A November conference could lead to a logistical tangle in Maryland's state capital, a Colonial-era seaport city of narrow streets and historic buildings. O'Malley is planning to call a special session of the General Assembly that month to consider a tax package, an undertaking that would consume most hotel rooms and parking.

Sun reporter John Murphy contributed to this article.

Notable Annapolis events

1695: Annapolis becomes Maryland's capital

1783 to 1784: City serves as capital of the nation when Continental Congress meets there

1783: George Washington resigns his commission as Continental Army's commander in chief

1784: Congress ratifies the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War

1786: Delegates from several states -- but not Maryland -- meet to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation, precursor to the Constitution

1845: U.S. Naval Academy is founded

1906: President Theodore Roosevelt eulogizes John Paul Jones at Revolutionary War hero's funeral at the Naval Academy

[Maryland State Archives]

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