Much Ado Before Summit

David Barkley of Mount Airy, Md., blows a shofar, a horn used on the Jewish High Holidays, as he joins pro-Israel activists outside the Naval Academy. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By William Wan and Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Throughout Annapolis yesterday, nondescript security men in dark suits secured the scene. Policy wonks, activists and low-level dignitaries mingled with tourists and locals roaming the historic streets in search of lunch and sights.

And at the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy, where a Middle East peace conference will take place today, a spontaneous mini-summit of sorts developed as various factions of protesters and activists, with little else to do a day ahead of the conference, gathered to voice their views.

Officially, the rally at the gate belonged to Shalom International, a group opposed to peace talks for fear they will weaken Israel. But only a small group of protesters, about 15, showed up.

"It's like a practice run, like foreplay before the real deal tomorrow," said the group's leader, Bob Kunst.

Within minutes of launching its morning rally, however, the group was outnumbered and overwhelmed by a pack of more than two dozen news cameras and reporters.

There were so many TV crews looking for interviews, Kunst said, it was hard to get much actual protesting done. "It was like a scene out of a Fellini movie," he said.

Then, attracted by the cameras and hubbub, other groups, already in Annapolis for panel discussions and a news conference at churches and synagogues, wandered by the academy gate and set up shop across the street.

Two men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, glared in silence. Both came at the invitation of local Quakers to talk about their hope for peace.

"Basically, we represent the other side," said Mossi Raz of Tel Aviv, shaking his head. His silent disapproval soon turned vocal as one of the activists crossed the street and began to berate him on his view of the Gaza Strip territory.

And into it all wandered Annapolis resident Mary McCutchan, 65, who observed the scene with some bewilderment as she walked her dog past the academy.

"If it's this crazy already, I'm afraid to think what it's going to be like tomorrow," she said. McCutchan had spent the morning planning a visit to the dentist with her aunt. There were street closures to think about and parking and timing as dignitaries come and go.

"Unfortunately, when my aunt scheduled her dental appointment, she didn't take international relations into account," she said.

Other locals also spent the day preparing for the conference.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that he would meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this afternoon and shortly after the announcement was spotted by a reporter walking into Johnson's haberdashery for a suit fitting.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold ordered a 5-by-35-foot sign to hang from county headquarters, reading: "Smooth Sailing to Peace."

Most dignitaries will commute this morning from Washington, said Edgar Moreno, an assistant director at the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, who is coordinating security.

"At this point, we don't envision shutting down any major roads or highways for any length of time," he said. "But there are going to be a number of motorcades traveling throughout the region, so there may be infrequent delays here and there."

It's not just the roads that could be affected. The Coast Guard planned to set up a security zone on waters about two nautical miles around the academy that will last until tomorrow night. The measures would limit boat traffic on the Severn River, College Creek and Spa Creek, the Coast Guard said.

The Federal Aviation Administration also planned to restrict air traffic within two nautical miles. Only law enforcement, medical and military flights will be permitted until 8 p.m. Two streets, King George Street and Randall Street, will be closed near the academy starting at 7 a.m. today.

And today, city officials are bracing for significantly more protesters, who will have to be situated on narrow streets in the centuries-old historic district surrounding the academy. Karen Engelke, the city's special projects coordinator, said one organizer talked to her about bringing 600 protesters to the city.

"I asked him had he ever been to Annapolis. We're a small residential city," she said. But no one will be denied a permit to protest, she added, because it is a First Amendment right.

By yesterday afternoon, the debates and demonstrations at the academy had fizzled as activists on all sides left to refuel.

Like the dignitaries, security teams and local commuters, the protesters were still fine-tuning their plans for today. "We've talked to 50 media guys already," Kunst said last night. "We're totally exhausted, and the conference hasn't even started yet."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company