The Annapolis conference offers a new opportunity for Palestinian-Israeli peace, a reporter from a Saudi news outlet told The Jerusalem Post at the opening of the conference held Tuesday at the US Naval Academy. "The time has come to put our steps on the right track toward peace," said Sharief Hussein Sharief. "There is something different now. There is more courage in so many countries." He said that until recently, those countries had been reluctant to engage with Israel, "but time is passing, and people are recognizing more and more that the only way to solve conflicts is to have a serious debate and negotiate between the Arab countries and Israel." Sharief spoke to an Israeli newspaper at the Naval Academy's basketball arena, converted into a makeshift press center to house hundreds of visiting journalists. But Saudi leaders had made clear ahead of their visit that they wanted to avoid any contact with their Israeli counterparts during the conference, including handshakes or photo ops. Officials had Israeli journalists removed from a briefing at the Saudi embassy the day before. Despite Saudi Arabia's willingness to participate in the conference, the image of open relations with Israelis was still a dangerous one for them, said another journalist from a Persian Gulf state. He was more pessimistic than his colleague about the prospects for a breakthrough, and said attitudes toward Israel and the US were worse now, following the Iraq invasion and the war in Lebanon last summer, than during the Oslo process of the 1990s. "There's deep skepticism about the conference. It's mostly related to the perception of the Bush administration. People think this initiative is coming late in the administration, after the war in Iraq and the showdown with Iran," he said. To the extent that this is a move toward normalization, he added, "the process of normalization takes years and generations. If Israel wants an immediate normalization, it won't happen." But another journalist from the Saudi press said that, even with the significant hostility the Saudi public had toward Israelis, "if the Palestinians get a good deal, I don't think that the Saudi people would be upset about that." The reporter said that it helped the Saudis that the Syrians had come to the conference: "The Syrians like to monopolize [the idea] that they are carrying the banner of struggle against Israel," so their presence means "this conference is not about sleeping with the enemy." A Syrian journalist refused to speak to the Post.