Annapolis Mideast Conference

Md. on world stage again

Capital city is third location in the state for Middle East talks

November 23, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown and David Nitkin | Matthew Hay Brown and David Nitkin,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- At Camp David, Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin held secret talks that led to a historic peace between their nations.

On the banks of the Wye River, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to give back part of the West Bank in return for concessions from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Now, Annapolis becomes the third Maryland locale to take a turn in the international spotlight as a venue in the long search for peace in the Middle East.

Limited to a single day, the Annapolis Conference on Tuesday will be both shorter and less ambitious than earlier negotiating sessions that put the state on the diplomatic map. It will be bracketed by private White House talks between President Bush and the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Though the Bush administration and Israeli and Palestinian leaders have sought to reduce expectations for the conference, organizers and observers hope the meeting - to be attended by diplomats from dozens of countries in the Arab world and beyond - can add to Maryland's history as a crucible for peace.

Maryland has made a comfortable venue for negotiating peace in the Middle East. As the lone remaining superpower and a financial backer of Israel and several of its Arab adversaries, the United States is a natural broker for such talks. Arab diplomats, in particular, believe that the United States is the only country capable of pressing Israel to make concessions.

Playing host to summit meetings, meanwhile, makes a powerful statement about U.S. commitment. But such conferences are not typically held in the nation's capital, because organizers prefer that leaders and their aides meet in more intimate, casual settings that allow informal, face-to-face talks: Think President Jimmy Carter coaxing Sadat toward peace as they walked on the trails of Camp David in 1978.

So scenic, secure venues within a reasonable drive of Washington are desirable. And Maryland has more than its share.

"Proximity to the nation's capital is one of our defining characteristics," said former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, a public policy teacher, historian and author. "We've done well by it. We make money off it. We've been doing it ever since the nation's capital was founded."

Willis calls Maryland a "middle temperament state," a place where North meets South and conflicting ideologies coexist side by side - not entirely unlike the Middle East.

"We have an historic tolerance and acceptance and even willingness to be a host," he said. "We pragmatically accept what is going on."

Experience with events involving presidents and other world leaders means that local officials - from governors to state troopers - are relatively unfazed by the pressures associated with being host for an international conference.

The history stretches back three decades to Camp David, in the Catoctin Mountains of Western Maryland, where Carter brought Begin and Sadat while their countries were still technically at war.

Initial meetings led to shouting matches, witnesses have said, and Begin and Sadat were barely on speaking terms. It was up to Carter to keep them at the retreat, and to shuttle between their cabins and relay the messages and positions between them. The 13 days of intense negotiations led Israel to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula in exchange for diplomatic relations with Egypt and free passage through the Suez Canal.

The atmosphere was no more cordial 20 years later at the Wye River Conference Center, on the Eastern Shore, where President Bill Clinton brought Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Netanyahu, the former Israeli special forces soldier, for nine days of talks. Ultimately, Arafat agreed to arrest Palestinian militants, surrender some weapons and strike a clause in the charter of the Palestinian Authority that denied the right of Israel to exist; Netanyahu agreed to release some Palestinian prisoners, lift trade restrictions and cede control of some of the West Bank. Not all of the terms ultimately were implemented.

The Camp David summit of 2000 was still less successful. Clinton, who, like Bush, was looking for a legacy-enhancing breakthrough near the end of his presidency, called Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the retreat to negotiate a final settlement. Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank, but the sides were unable to come to terms over the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, and the talks collapsed. Renewed fighting broke out two months later.

The Annapolis Conference is intended to build international support for new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Bush administration officials hope the sides will conclude with a joint statement that will point the way toward a final settlement.

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