Annapolis Primed for Peace Talks

By Steve Vogel and Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 26, 2007

Inside the ornate Memorial Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, where delegates for the Middle East peace conference are to gather tomorrow, a large blue flag hangs, bearing words immortal in American history: "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP."

The flag is not intended as a message to the parties who abandoned the peace process in 2000, U.S. State Department officials said.

"The flag has obviously been in there for a long time, and it will be there for a long time after this conference is over," said Brian R. Besanceney, deputy chief of staff for planning for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Yet symbolism was a major reason that Annapolis, the 300-year-old city on the Severn River, was chosen as the setting for the conference, which is to be attended by President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Syria announced yesterday that it plans to send a deputy foreign minister. And delegates from nearly 50 countries and organizations have also been invited.

Rice "wanted something that was unmistakably American, that had a strong historic provenance," Besanceney said in an interview. "Certainly, Annapolis fit those criteria very well."

Annapolis also fit other criteria: State Department officials wanted a site within helicopter range of or a short airplane flight from Washington to make it easier for Bush and other officials to attend. They needed a facility large enough to accommodate at least 50 delegations because of Arab insistence that the conference have broader international representation. They needed a site that could be flexible on dates because of uncertainty about when the conference would take place. And they needed a place with tight security. The academy grounds, surrounded by water and a tall brick wall, "are probably easier to secure than some places," Besanceney said.

But the setting and history -- both the city's and the academy's -- are "probably 75 percent" of the reason it was chosen, he said.

The primary meetings will be in Memorial Hall, sometimes described as the spiritual heart of the academy. It lies in the center of Bancroft Hall, the academy's sprawling dormitory.

The words stitched on the flag in Memorial Hall are said to be the dying command of James Lawrence, captain of the USS Chesapeake, who was mortally wounded during a naval battle with the British during the War of 1812.

Beneath the flag, a scroll bears the names of more than 900 academy graduates killed in action in the nation's wars. "We want to remind the delegates of that sacrifice," Besanceney said.

He also noted that the city hosted the Annapolis Convention in 1786, which led to the Constitutional Convention the next year in Philadelphia.

"The city of Annapolis played an important but overlooked role in creating our country," he said. "That fact was not lost on us."

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