Mideast leaders in right place for talking

November 27, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Peace? Piece of cake.

If Navy can beat Notre Dame, if Speaker of the House Mike Busch can support a slots bill, surely anything is possible in Annapolis.

Those extraordinary events, of course, were years, even decades, in the making, so maybe we shouldn't expect another Annapolis anomaly to emerge from the Middle East peace talks at the U.S. Naval Academy that are scheduled to both begin and end in a single day.

That seems like barely enough time to fill out the Hello-I'm-Mahmoud name tag, let alone get the coffee orders straight, but then again, the official line on the confab is that it's not so much about signing a big peace treaty as just talking about talking some more in the future.

In that case, they've come to the right place. If there's anything Annapolis can do, it's talk.

Yesterday, the damp fall air quickly filled with words, comments, statements, denunciations and other assorted verbiage - sort of a pre-game show to fill the hours before the big event itself. With the actual conference delegations no doubt mostly ensconced in Washington where they attended a dinner at the State Department last night, Annapolis belonged yesterday to the interest groups, from here and elsewhere.

For some, it was just thrilling for an issue so close to their heart - Middle East security - to draw so much interest in a town more commonly obsessed with the local warring parties, Mikes Miller and Busch.

(Gov. Martin O'Malley, who managed to bring the two legislative leaders together on the slots referendum, isn't attempting to similarly broker Mideast peace - he's hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for lunch today, but not Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "Everyone's really busy," explained the governor's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, adding that O'Malley and Olmert have a personal history going back to when they were mayors, respectively, of Baltimore and Jerusalem.)

Rabbi Ari Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom just outside Annapolis joked that his congregation brought out the cloth napkins and the good silver as the nominal local hosts of the conference.

"Everyone's dressed up a little," Goldstein said. "We joke that in Annapolis everyone dresses boat casual for everything. But today, we're in our Shabbat best."

Outside the Naval Academy's main gate, a fluctuating group numbering in the very low two figures made itself available for sound bites about why Israel - and the U.S. - shouldn't even be speaking to the Palestinians. (Because, as Yosef Yankelev, a protester from Baltimore, said, you can't negotiate peace with people who want to wipe you off the face of the Earth.)

The gathering brought together the once seemingly odd but increasingly strong alliance of Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians, united on what they say is the biblical dictum that Israel should be a Jewish state.

"I'm here for obvious reasons. I'm an Orthodox Jew," said Yankelev, a concert violinist and teacher. "And I'm very grateful for your company," he said with a nod to a Christian protester from Tyler, Texas.

"It's an honor," Ron Beals, a doctor, responded.

Beals, the secretary-treasurer of something called the East Texas Biblical Prophecy Forum, said evangelicals, "if they understand their Bible, will support Israel. Because Jesus was a Jew, and the guys that wrote the Bible were Jews."

Meanwhile, in an office on Main Street, other Jewish groups called a news conference to support the talks, saying theirs was the more widespread view of the Annapolis meeting than the "fringe" elements who oppose it.

In what the hopeful would wish to see today, a group of Jewish leaders sat in harmonious agreement with a Muslim peace activist, "the daughter of a martyr," as she described herself, whose father once headed Egyptian military intelligence and was assassinated by the Israelis in 1956.

Nonie Darwish spoke of reciting jihadist poetry as a child attending elementary school in Gaza and being told that the Jews wanted to kill Arab children to bake cookies with their blood. "Now, as an adult, I now reject all this indoctrination," Darwish said. "I support peace. I support Israel."

Most in the room - including Jewish leaders such as Art Abramson, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council - have seen summits come and go, accords signed, roadmaps plotted and, still, Mideast peace prove elusive.

"I'm very hopeful," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, an Annapolitan who founded the Israel Project, a nonprofit educational group that organized the news conference. "But I'm not optimistic."

Still, she was willing to make her own little peace - she and other supporters of the talks gathered up their own signs to stand next to the group outside the Naval Academy denouncing those very talks.

No bloodshed ensued.


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