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.
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.