WASHINGTON -- Tomorrow's Mideast peace conference, behind the walls that guard the U.S. Naval Academy campus, is surrounded by misconceptions. For starters, it's not a negotiation.
No one will be locking Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into a room, there to stay until they've solved some of the Middle East's thorniest problems. Much of the arm-twisting associated with the conference will already have occurred by the time the leaders arrive in Annapolis -- it's what President Bush and the State Department have been doing for weeks, just to get them to show up.
Nor is it clear that the one-day meeting will produce anything very substantial. Administration officials said they are hoping that Olmert and Abbas will at least agree to a joint statement that would point the way to a Palestinian state and an end to the decades-old conflict.
In an effort to keep expectations in check, the State Department has pitched the conference as a "launching pad" for talks, an opportunity to bring the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority together in the presence of more than 40 other nations -- including Saudi Arabia and at least 14 other Arab states -- and commit to future negotiations.
"The success of this meeting is really in the launch of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the establishment of a Palestinian state and therefore a two-state solution," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters last week. "We did think it was important to bring the international community together in order to support what has to be a bilateral process."
Tomorrow in Annapolis is planned to play out like a mini-session of the United Nations. Bush will hold a morning meeting with Olmert and Abbas. Then all three will deliver speeches at the conference. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be among the dignitaries present.
Bush will then return to the White House, while the afternoon is given over to a succession of meetings, at which any of the participants -- even those from states with which the United States has strained relations -- may speak. That means that Syria, for example, could take the opportunity to raise the issue of Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights before the assembly, which will meet in a session closed to the news media and public.
"We think it represents an opportunity for all those who would like to make meaningful steps toward peace to come and represent their views," C. David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters last week. "You know, we're the United States, we're affording a platform here for responsible opinion, and they're entitled to express their views and their national interests as they see them. We won't turn off the microphone."
That will make Annapolis very different from landmark summits such as Camp David or Oslo, where Israeli and Arab leaders met privately for days to hammer out agreements. Bush will meet separately with Olmert and Abbas today at the White House and then host a dinner at the State Department for all the participants.
The last time that Israel and the Arab world met around a conference table was in Cairo in 1996, a meeting that drew more than 4,000 political, diplomatic and business leaders. Little was accomplished.
All sides have sought to play down expectations for this week's event. It is, in fact, just one step in a long process that also includes the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and the Bush "road map" of 2003. The conference comes a week after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined a series of projects designed to bolster the Palestinian economy, and a month before donors meet in Paris to pledge support for the Palestinian Authority.
Still, Annapolis signals U.S. re-engagement in the conflict seven years after the failure of the last Camp David summit, between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which gave way to renewed violence.
"It's better to have the conference even with limited goals and limited achievements, than just stand aside and wait for the parties to do something," said Saadia Touval, author of The Peace Brokers: Mediators in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Olmert and Abbas have been communicating for weeks in advance of the conference. Rice said the United States is still talking to them about how to follow up on the meeting, and what role the international community will take in continuing talks.
The effort is not without risk.