Not so, says the administration, which plans a soft start tonight with a formal dinner at the State Department, then moves to Maryland for a one-day working session.
The conference is not intended to result in a specific peace plan but instead to restart a series of substantive talks - a not-insignificant development, U.S. officials contend.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, along with diplomats from nearly 50 countries, are invited inside the high-security perimeter of the U.S. Naval Academy in an attempt to generate international support for another effort to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations after a violence-plagued seven-year hiatus and another hail-Mary pass by a lame-duck president longing for luck and a legacy.
"The main hope for Rice is to generate enough momentum to leverage the one element that has not existed since the start of the peace process in 1991: a belief that the other side is genuine," said David Makovsky, an expert on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If you don't succeed, try again; that's diplomacy in a nutshell.
But in the Middle East, where blood is spilled routinely, the price of failure can be another round of deadly violence. To reach for peace is admirable. But it can quickly turn lethal if the groundwork isn't there and the effort fails, experts say.
A flop could mean the extremist Palestinian faction Hamas expands its sphere of control from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank. It could weaken Palestinian moderates and energize another round of limited warfare if ordinary Palestinians, stirred by frustration, join the fighters because they see no political horizon that leads to a Palestinian state.
"If Annapolis is a failure, it will send the nations and the entire area into a period of much greater suffering," said Palestinian Abed El Razek, a former cabinet minister, speaking recently at a forum on the potential and the pitfalls of the conference.
A central problem is that Israel wants the conference simply to launch a new round of talks to determine whether it is even possible to reach for agreement on the core issues: sharing Jerusalem; the future of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war; and the borders of any future Palestinian state.
The Palestinians, for the most part, want to deal with those so-called final-status issues immediately, hoping to avoid a situation in which they engage in yet more peace talks without progress toward peace.
"We want to verify that we can reach a solution regarding the disputed issues," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.
Abbas contends that the key issues can be resolved in six to eight months of hard bargaining.
While recent polls show most Palestinians and Israelis want their leaders to negotiate, they also show majorities on both sides believe the effort can't succeed at this time.
Some skeptics attribute that mix of skepticism and limited hope to the fact that neither Bush, Olmert nor Abbas is operating from a position of strength.
Olmert, already weakened by the perception that he mishandled last year's war with the Lebanese Hezbollah, has a governing coalition that depends on two parties - one that's ultraorthodox, the other, ultranationalist - that are opposed to any substantial concessions to the Palestinians and will threaten to topple the government.
Abbas - virtually evicted from leadership last summer when Hamas overran Gaza - could lose the West Bank, too, as he tries to dance between advocacy for his people and the need to be seen as a player whom both Israel and the United States can deal with.
Bush, for his part, is on the downslope of his presidency, mired in Iraq, and hearing his successor's footsteps as the U.S. election season moves into full swing.
"The three poker players are going to sit down together, pretending to start the game," said Uri Avnery, a gadfly on the Israeli left, "while none of them has a cent to put on the table."
There has been much speculation about the difficulty the Israelis and Palestinians have had on reaching agreement about a possible joint statement to be delivered at the conference.
A text purporting to be a leaked draft surfaced last week in the Israeli press. It focuses on recommitting the parties to the U.S.-sponsored road map, launched in 2003, which calls on the Palestinians to suppress violence and on Israel to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The leaked document says the United States will monitor and judge fulfillment of the commitments.
For the conference to be perceived as a substantive success, not just in the United States, but back home on the ground, and particularly in the Arab world, it needs to go further than that, advance critics say.
"First the participants were to deal with the 'core issues,' " Avnery saud. "Then it was announced that a weighty declaration of intentions was to be adopted. Then a mere collection of empty phrases was proposed. Now even that is in doubt."
Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or email@example.com.