Amid all the pressure of yesterday's Annapolis peace conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could count on seeing at least one friendly face: Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Maryland and Israel have long fostered economic and civic ties, but the bond these days is a little more personal. The governor and the prime minister first became acquainted at a 2001 meeting about CitiStat when they were mayors, of Baltimore and Jerusalem, respectively. In 2005, after dinner in Jerusalem, Olmert clapped then-Mayor O'Malley on the shoulder and said he hoped he would be able to visit him soon in the Maryland governor's mansion.
Yesterday, he got his wish. When O'Malley heard Olmert was going to be in Annapolis, he invited the prime minister to Government House. Despite the packed schedule of diplomacy, Olmert and O'Malley chatted over chicken salad sandwiches for nearly an hour. The meeting ended with a hug.
"We hit it off when we first met," O'Malley said afterward. "Once a mayor, always a mayor."
Although O'Malley and Olmert have taken interest in each other's career over the past several years, it's hardly surprising that two top leaders from Maryland and Israel would know each other.
Thanks to the efforts of the Baltimore Jewish Council and other groups, hundreds of state government, economic and civic leaders have traveled between the two places over the past 20 years, and trade missions have strengthened business ties, particularly in the high-tech sector.
O'Malley did not invite the Palestinian delegation for lunch. Aides said he extended the courtesy only to Olmert because the two are old acquaintances, but James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the Palestinians should have been invited.
The O'Malley lunch is not the only time Olmert was extended an invitation during this peace conference while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not, underscoring the fact that America's ties with Israel are closer than its ties with the Palestinians, Zogby said.
"This was a perfect time to build that tie and to send a message to both parties that the governor is committed to peace," Zogby said. "In diplomacy, everything matters, so if you're invited to someone's state and you're there to make peace with someone and the person you're making peace with isn't invited, it sends a message, and that message is one of slight."
O'Malley has generally had good relations with Maryland's Muslim community. He was the chief guest at the Maryland Muslim Council's annual dinner this fall, and in January he established a state Commission on Middle Eastern American Affairs. He met yesterday with that group and other Jewish and Muslim organizations.
Maryland leaders have long taken trips aimed at promoting understanding of the Middle East, generally organized by the state's large Jewish community.
"We call the trips, 'Israel: Warts and All,'" said Arthur C. Abramson, director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "We always meet with Palestinians, we meet with members of the different political parties at all ends of the spectrum, we have taken groups into Gaza. The idea is, people can learn for themselves."
"With education comes understanding," Abramson added. "If we build understanding between the respective communities and the respective political entities, it can only increase the prospects for peace."
People who have taken the trips - which were initially paid for by the Lyn and Harvey Meyerhoff Foundation and are now funded by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation - include every governor since Harry Hughes, every Baltimore mayor since William Donald Schaefer, and dozens of congressmen, delegates and senators.
The ties have helped foster trade. Maryland exports about $44 million a year in goods and services to Israel - a figure that's up 45 percent over the past five years, said Barry Bogage, executive director of the Maryland/Israel Development Council.
Defense and computer companies have led the way, Bogage said, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and ARINC Inc., which supplies communication technology to airlines.
Maryland also houses "the third- or fourth-largest concentration of Israeli companies" in the United States, he said, with 30 or 40, most focused on homeland security or biomedical products.
One of the Maryland companies that found opportunity in Israel is Nobska Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Stevenson.
"We see Israel as being Silicon Valley-like in the degree of entrepreneurship in a compact area," said Charles P. Moore, chairman and managing director.
O'Malley's interest in Israel when he was mayor had less to do with business than with security. He headed a homeland security committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and in 2005 he visited Israel to see the kinds of technology used there to combat terrorism. He also learned about Israel's use of closed-circuit television cameras, which have become a ubiquitous part of Baltimore's crime-fighting efforts.