Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis, Md., has a daily tradition. At 8:30 a.m. on weekdays (9:30 on Saturdays and Sundays), eating and serving cease so that all in the Main Street restaurant may stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
On Nov. 27, owner Ted Levitt was running a little behind. Annapolis was crawling with hundreds of journalists in town for the landmark Mideast conference, and two were filming Levitt behind his deli counter. Not far away delegates from 43 nations and about a dozen international organizations converged-under massive security-on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy to chart a course the Bush administration hopes will end in a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side.
But for a moment world affairs had to wait, as Levitt grabbed his microphone, doffed a black driving cap, faced a hanging American flag with hand over heart. On cue everyone sprang to their feet and followed along.
Levitt's morning ritual began in 1989. Visiting his son's school one morning, Levitt left annoyed that students did not start the day with the pledge. The same day, four of his regulars said they were steamed, too, over a flag-burning story in the paper. Saying the pledge every day at his deli, said Levitt, who is Jewish, is just "the right thing to do."
Clear-headed, straightforward perseverance of "the right thing to do" has hardly been the hallmark of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. After seven years of stalled peace talks and months of frantic diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designed the Annapolis conference as a launching pad for future talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Their goal now is to hash out the details of the U.S.-sponsored "workplan" agreed upon in Annapolis during a series of biweekly sessions set to begin on Dec 12.
The coming months will be the true test of the Annapolis meeting's success as both sides have far to go in bridging the gaps that have plagued the region for six decades and choked one peace accord after another. Suggested compromises on just one of the major issues are enough to launch a firestorm of protest on both sides. Analysts seem to agree only on one thing: The workplan's failure could be disastrous for the region, but if diplomats apply the lessons of past failures in the journey ahead, they might bring some measure of peace.
Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli diplomat and founder of the Israeli-based Reut Institute, says the Israeli public "has come to terms with the fact that in order to preserve the state of Israel as we know it, we will have to compromise areas that are the cradle of Hebrew civilization, primarily the West Bank."
But while Olmert-whose popularity has plummeted since the 2006 war in Lebanon-exchanged pleasantries in Annapolis, 20,000 Israelis protested at the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism and within the boundaries of East Jerusalem, the city Palestinians want to claim for their capital.
Abbas-like Olmert lacking in political strength since Hamas took over Gaza last summer-left little room for concessions during his speech in Annapolis, emphasizing the importance of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, the right of return for refugees, and the dismantlement of all Israeli settlements. Even with this familiar list, he was denounced as a sellout when thousands of Palestinian protesters flooded the streets of Gaza and the West Bank.
Rafi Dajani, executive director for the American Task Force on Palestine, told WORLD that the Palestinians have already made their compromise: "For Palestinians, the main concession that they have made, their historical compromise, is the fact that they are accepting a Palestinian state on 22 percent, or maybe a little less, than mandatory Palestine."
That leaves a lot of ground to cover before the end of President Bush's term in January 2009, the suggested timeline for the plan, and Grinstein says the repercussions of a failed political process could be "very, very severe," emboldening the radical factions in the region and leading to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank.
"The Bush administration was probably too quick to embrace a political strategy to reach an agreement that would be detailed, specific, and comprehensive. In a sense, they are pursuing an all-or-nothing political strategy against an extremely complicated and challenging reality," Grinstein said.
However, several scenarios are different this time around, and those changes could tip the scale in favor of a lasting peace deal.
Delegates from 43 countries and 10 international organizations attended the conference, including two long-time enemies of Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Syria's presence in particular signals a historic opportunity to improve relations between Israel and her northern neighbor. "Syria is the headstone of the Iranian presence in the heart of the Middle East," Grinstein said. "Through Syria the Iranians are interacting with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories." Workplan watchers can expect "much greater ripeness on the Syrian track than the Palestinian track," Grinstein predicts, and Syrian support of the workplan could neutralize its terrorist connections.
Both Grinstein and Dajani say that previous peace accords were flawed in their implementations. "In the past the problem was that both sides had different interpretations of what a settlement freeze meant for Israelis and what security meant for Palestinians," Dajani said. With the United States playing the role of "monitor and judge" this time around, Dajani anticipates less confusion over which side has lived up to its end of the bargain.
But underlying all plans, promises, and pledges is one disturbing reality: Israel is not short on enemies avowed to ending the nation's existence. Dajani says a Palestinian state is the means to the end of that hostility: "If a two-state solution is achieved, there is no doubt that every single Arab country will recognize Israel."
Grinstein is slightly less optimistic: "As far as we can see into the future there are radical Islamic groups . . . that reject the right of Israel to exist and will take action to preserve their ideology."
Grinstein expects "a certain element of friction" always present in Israel's relationship to the Arab world. "But I do believe we can reach a reality, such as the kind of reality we have with Egypt, where by and large we have peaceful coexistence for long periods of time."
Back at Chick & Ruth's-named for Levitt's parents who were its original owners-Levitt sees more pomp than purpose to the Annapolis gathering: "They're sitting down. I don't think anything's going to be [solved] whatsoever, but they're talking."
Levitt's café has a long connection to political figures and celebrities. The yellow walls are studded with photos of famous visitors, and the old-style deli décor matches Levitt's warm, down-home values. From the time Spiro Agnew first became a regular at the restaurant, the Levitts have made it a point to name dishes after political figures. All get to pick their own sandwich, and almost all have to be regulars, except the president, vice president, and Golda Meir (who has a lock on the lox sandwich).
Marjorie Buss, a Chick and Ruth's regular and part-time nursing student, was bemused by last week's celebrity status suddenly visited on her town of 40,000. And a little worried. She thought so many world leaders might draw a terrorist attack to Annapolis: "I hate to think of something happening to this beautiful little town."
Buss is not only realistic about the threats but about the hurdles to solving the Israeli-Palestinian equation in the midst of a war on terror: "People have been trying for decades-they're not going to solve it here in one day."
-with reporting by Priya Abraham, in Annapolis