The Sketch: The great, the good and the many gather in hallowed halls

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The Independent Online

The old rule used to be, the importance of an international meeting is in direct inverse proportion to the number of people attending. By that yardstick this latest attempt to sort out the Middle East ought to be doomed in advance: 55 national delegations and international organisations came to Annapolis yesterday, including such improbable players in the region as Slovenia, Brazil and Senegal.

But in the US Naval Academy here, America's senior service equivalent of West Point, no cause is beyond rescue, even the matter of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. "Don't Give Up The Ship", proclaimed a big banner in the graceful Memorial Hall where the above mighty throng assembled to listen to President George Bush, have lunch, then hold two plenary sessions.

Though the November weather was blustery, whipping up waves on Chesapeake Bay, this was a cherished moment on the diplomatic map for this colonial-era city, host to a constitutional convention back in 1786, but in modern times best known for its annual boat show and the heroics of the Navy football team. But now, who knows? The Dayton, Ohio, accords are shorthand for the peace deal in Bosnia; maybe one day the "Annapolis process" will mean a solution to the most intractable dispute on the planet.

But enough of day-dreaming. The real reason they chose Annapolis was because it's a convenient helicopter-hop from Washington DC, and the Academy itself – "One of the finest institutions we have in America", according to Mr Bush yesterday – is easily defensible, bordered by walls on the landward side, and the sea on the other.

Just to make sure there would be no seaborne nautical intrusions by the bad guys, the US Coast Guard imposed a two-mile security zone in the bay.

For this correspondent, operating along with 1,000 of his colleagues in the Academy's basketball arena turned media centre, the atmosphere resembled the press room at a world chess championship game.

Old grandmasters of Middle East strategising, such as Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, wandered the aisles, giving their assessment of the latest position on the board, and working through the likely next moves of the two adversaries.

And one thing's for sure. In this particular game, there are many, many moves to come , even if the sceptics are already predicting that the outcome will be one more stalemate to add to the others of the past 60 years.

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