While Bush administration officials have been doing all they can to dampen expectations for next week's Mideast meeting in Annapolis -- even warning reporters not to call it a "peace conference" -- Jewish and Muslim leaders in Maryland apparently did not get the message.
In interviews this week, rabbis, imams and others expressed hope that real progress can be made in Annapolis, saying it would be a shame to squander such a rare opportunity -- having representatives from Israel, the United States and many Arab states at the same table.
"Even if it is for one day, I am optimistic," said Akbar Ansari, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council. "I believe there is enough goodness in the world that nothing is impossible."
Watching from afar, religious leaders in Baltimore said both sides appear to have the political will and backing for peace, in contrast with previous conferences. They also said they believe Israeli and Palestinian leaders are willing to make concessions now to stop the violence.
Arthur C. Abramson, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, expects that a compromise would involve Israel's giving Palestinians most of the West Bank and some land in the Negev Desert, the partitioning of Jerusalem, and the creation of a Palestinian state headquartered outside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem.
"The consequences for failure are too great," Abramson said. He thinks the Bush administration will make the conference succeed to avoid embarrassment. "I cannot possibly believe that the administration would spend as much time as it has and invest as much in terms of prestige and importance on a charade."
Abramson and others said they are glad to see the administration again focusing energy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, after so much time when it seemed as if American efforts were focused elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have been more in the news, but there is now a will for peace that some said they have not seen in some time from Israelis and Palestinians.
"I get the sense at least that the Israelis as a people, the core of the Israeli people, the hard center, really does want and is willing to take risks for peace," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville.
He said Israel must consider ways to control the expansion of settlements in disputed territories, which provoke the Palestinians. Also, he said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must gain better control of Palestinians, who are split into Fatah and Hamas factions that are fighting each other.
"They're busy killing each other and have polarized the entire Palestinian populace," Loeb said. "If people could find ways to make their life more meaningful, more endurable, more hopeful -- that's where America comes in."
Several local religious leaders said the economic situation for Palestinians must be addressed before peace is possible. The creation of jobs and industry for Palestinians, as well as easy access to work, is crucial, said Ansari of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.
"If the Palestinians have to go to work every day, would they go out and start throwing stones at Israeli soldiers rather than drive to work?" Ansari said. It is also necessary, he said, for real trust to be built between the two sides.
In such a gesture, Israel yesterday approved a military shipment of ammunition and 25 armored trucks to Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, where Abbas' Fatah faction has control. Earlier in the week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would free 441 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
"Peace will not come by saying, 'OK, I want to live peacefully,'" Ansari said. "Trust needs to be built, and for trust to be built, both sides need to take different actions to build each other's confidence."
Anwer Hassan, president of the Maryland Muslim Council, said the mere fact of the meeting in Annapolis is enough to give him hope. "If we can break the ice for however many years we have not met, it will be very hopeful and optimistic that at least they are meeting together and trying to figure out the next step," he said.
Hassan said each side needs to learn to respect the other. But he also spoke of the need to provide jobs for Palestinians. "The whole dilemma I see is economic conditions in that part of the world, and until that's taken care of, any solution we come up with will be short," he said.
When James Greene, a student rabbi at the Columbia Jewish Congregation, was studying in Jerusalem in the winter of 2002, he was hit by shrapnel in one of the suicide bombings that terrorized the city during the current run of violence that began in 2000. There was anger and frustration then, he said, where now there is a greater desire for peace.
"It makes me more hopeful than I ever have been," said Greene, 26. "Hope for peace is what's left for the Jewish community. ... What's the alternative?"
He said a lesson from the 2000 peace summit at Camp David was that negotiations are futile if each side lacks the political ability to make peace. Now, he said, with the inclusion of so many Arab states at the Annapolis conference and after seven years of violence, the ground is set for something more lasting.
"We've seen enough of what happens when we don't have high hopes for peace," Greene said. "Whether it comes in a year or 15 years, I think the alternative to peace is too sad of a vision to hold in front of us."