It has become tradition by now that no American president may leave office without not making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, always to great fanfare but less and less prospect of success. The rhetoric tends to be produced in inverse ratio to anything actually achieved.
Sometimes the show is put on at Camp David with attendant walks in the woods, last-minute breakdowns, and general, overwrought drama. At other times, like now, the performance involves a grand presidential progress through the Middle East to no apparent effect.
Exaggerated expectations have become an essential part of the rite that marked the last year of both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. And if there's a Clinton II administration, one suspects the same pageant will be re-enacted with ever declining prospects for real peace.
It just may be too much to expect that, in the last, declining year of an American presidency, and in the midst of the usual election-year hurly-burly, presidents would give up their addiction to over-optimistic assessments and hyped rhetoric.
Jaw-jaw is better, as Winston Churchill once observed, than war-war. By all means, let these three-way negotiations in the Mideast proceed. Maybe indefinitely. But why bring in the Big Names and bigger dreams without having laid the groundwork for any realistic understanding?
The cause of peace would be better served by lowering both expectations and the volume. The wilder the promises - this time an American president has spoken of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty by the end of the year - the greater the disappointment when no peace materializes. Let's keep hope alive, but let's face the considerable obstacles that stand in the way.
To achieve peace requires strong leaders who can count on the support of their people for unpalatable sacrifices. Menachem Begin was able to meet all of Egypt's territorial demands in return for a cold peace that, whatever its defects, is far better than war. But have there ever been weaker leaders than today's on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the table?
Israel's Ehud Olmert may be the most distrusted leader in the Jewish state's history, having presided over at least a moral defeat for his country in the latest war in Lebanon. Now he may lose whatever peace remains on the West Bank if he agrees to remove the Israeli troops there and make way for a terrorist state nestled against Israel's long, exposed flank.