Paul Greenberg

It is a familiar pattern by now: When the Israelis decamped from Lebanon, Hezbollah filled the vacuum, and war came. The Israelis uprooted their settlements in the Gaza Strip, but instead of their departure leading to peace, they succeeded mainly in moving the war zone a few miles across the Israeli border. The rockets no longer fall on Israeli settlements in Gaza - there aren't any left - but on border towns like Sderot and, thanks to Iranian-supplied rockets, on Ashkelon even further up the coast.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians' pro-forma leader, he doesn't even control all of his own proto-state, having lost Gaza to Hamas in a bloody uprising that could indicate the fate of the West Bank, too, once the Israelis depart. He heads a state that has failed even before it became a state.

It's not that there isn't light at the end of the tunnel, there's always been. There's just no tunnel. The happy vision of two states, Jewish and Arab, living in peace, security and economic and political cooperation goes way back - at least to the Peel Commission's report of 1937. One can almost trace the history of Arab-Israeli relations by the times such a solution has been proposed but never came to fruition.

There was the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946; the partition of the British mandate approved by the United Nations in 1947; the Madrid Conference of 1991 and all its failed progeny, from the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 to the Camp David Summit of 2000 and the Bush Road Map of 2003. And that's to mention only some of the wreckage along the road to peace that, again and again, has led to war.

Now we're in the middle of still another empty diplomatic exercise, which promises to produce a paper peace at best. To borrow a phrase from Israel's Abba Eban, who had a gift for pithy sayings, Palestinian leaders from Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

There comes a time to recognize that, however bleak the prospects for a happy ending to this long, long conflict, things could be worse, and have been. Regularly. See the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, both of which dragged in the entire Arab world and, to an alarming extent, the great powers, too, with their nuclear arsenals.

If the goal were more modest in the Mideast, like just containing the current brush fires, it might be achievable. Instead, we get talk of a comprehensive peace treaty by the end of 2008. But the lower the expectations, the more real the achievements might be.

Yes, such counsel sounds almost un-American. For when we Americans perceive a problem, our first impulse is to fix it - now, completely and forever, at least on paper. When it would really be a great step forward just to ameliorate the danger of war.

Conclusion: Instead of unrealistic promises and cloud-cuckoo timetables, a little understatement, even a little salutary neglect, would not be out of order. There are worse things than the status quo, unsatisfying as it is. For there is nothing so bad it couldn't be made worse by the kind of airy speechifying that has no basis in reality - and leads only to more disappointment and more distrust.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.