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The Annapolis Adventure

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The charming, historic town of Annapolis is quiet again, now that the President, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the representatives of 40 other nations have had their one-day conference and headed back to Washington. Those of us who live nearby can drive downtown again and sailboats can cruise alongside the Naval Academy campus, all of which was off-limits while the world's top diplomats were here.

So what was accomplished, other than hearing the President mangle the pronunciation of the names of his two new best friends, Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine? What remains after the photo op?

Quite a lot, actually. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have committed themselves publicly and formally to begin sustained, face-to-face, bi-lateral negotiations of all the important issues that divide them. These include the final-status questions like the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and whether exiled Palestinians have the right to return to their former homes or be compensated for them. The goal is a peace treaty within a year.

"The time has come" Ehud Olmert said repeatedly to address all these issues without pre-conditions or forbidden topics. "We Palestinians are ready," said Mahmoud Abbas. The first talks are to be held in two weeks.

That is no small achievement, even if the outcome is far from certain. Certainly the world has waited long enough. It was 60 years ago this month that the partition of Palestine was adopted by the United Nations, 30 years ago when President Anwar Sadat made his journey to Jerusalem, 40 years ago this year that Israel occupied the West Bank.

The irony is that the talks should begin now, when Olmert is at a low ebb in the public opinion polls in Israel, Abbas controls only a part of Palestine and Bush is in his final year in office. Perhaps it was the very weakness of the three that propelled them to take big risks politically to try to restore their standing.

The choice of Annapolis as a conference venue was interesting. It is handy to Washington and the Naval Academy is a secure site where the President could chopper in and out for his three-hour foray into high-stakes diplomacy.

But it has history going for it, too. In 1786, it was the site of the Annapolis Convention, where delegates from five states gathered to hammer out thorny trade and commerce issues. That led to the historic Constitutional Convention that convened in Philadelphia the following year and wrote our national charter.

Big things can happen when people gather here.

Terence Smith covered Israel and the Middle East for The New York Times for five years.