This is the tragedy of America's situation now in the Promised Land: Never has the Arab-Israeli issue been more critical to our national interests and to our security, yet rarely have we been so uniquely ill-positioned to manage it -- let alone resolve it. In a post-9/11 era, the cause of Palestine drives recruits to al-Qaeda and helps generate lethal levels of anti-Americanism. But for almost seven years, the Bush administration has hung a "Closed for the Season" sign on serious Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent Middle East mission has shown that the administration is now finally open for Arab-Israeli business. But the Rice initiative is almost certainly way too little, way too late.
Watching Rice these days, I have to believe that she knows this too, despite her public optimism. Having worked for her six predecessors on Arab-Israeli negotiations, I think it's pretty clear that the odds against a dramatic breakthrough are long, the time for the Bush administration is short, and the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians are galactic. So Rice's belated efforts face terribly long odds -- both because the region has changed too much and because the United States has sat on the sidelines for too long.
As one of the planners of the Camp David summit in July 2000, I'm painfully aware that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's unwillingness to negotiate, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's illusions about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the cheap and President Bill Clinton's well-intentioned but weak summit management doomed the last, best chance for a breakthrough. But if you think diplomacy doesn't work, try abandonment. Years of off-again, on-again Israeli-Palestinian confrontation and neglect from the Bush administration have reduced the chances of ending the conflict from slim to none.
Part of the problem is that the "software" of Israeli-Palestinian relations has changed: The confidence, trust and problem-solving spirit of the 1990s Oslo peace process have been replaced by unilateralism, fear, anger and a loss of faith in the power of negotiations to alter cruel realities on the ground. But the hardware of the conflict has also changed during the Bush hiatus. Palestinian suicide terrorism, rockets and kidnappings have combined with Israeli closures, targeted killings and settlement growth to make cooperation excruciatingly difficult. The emblem of this deterioration is Hamas, which has had the upper hand in Palestinian politics since winning elections in January 2006. The radical Islamic movement's entry into Palestinian government -- without abandoning terrorism -- has produced a semblance of unity in Palestinian politics, but it has also guaranteed continued strife with Israel. Palestinians are buying peace at home at the price of conflict next door.
To those intrepid souls who argue that desperation and crisis have pushed Israelis and Palestinians closer to a deal in the seven lost years, I can say only that I hope so -- but my experience suggests otherwise. In an existential conflict driven by memory, identity, religion and national trauma, the Israeli and Palestinian capacities to absorb and inflict pain are limitless. When these two sides become fearful and angry, they don't get magnanimous, they get even. Rice has said that "the underlying circumstances" for peacemaking "are better now" than they were in 2000. That reminds me of Groucho Marx's famous line: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
There are a few hopeful signs, particularly Saudi Arabia's new peace push and a willingness by some key pro-U.S. Arab states to be more active. But against these rays of hope looms a perfect storm of negatives that has been gathering for years. Here are the four most troubling problems:
Even if there were a deal to be cut, nobody is on the ground to cut it. The age of heroic politics in Arab-Israeli peacemaking is over, at least for now. We see plenty of smart politicians but few statesmen. The titans -- Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Jordan's King Hussein, Israel's Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin -- are gone; even more flawed figures such as Arafat and Ariel Sharon are gone. And with them have gone the historic legitimacy, courage and clout for making big decisions. Instead, on the Israeli side, we've seen young, inexperienced prime ministers -- Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and the country's flailing current leader, Ehud Olmert -- who lack authority and tend to stumble badly.
On the Arab side, the situation is even gloomier. Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to reveal almost all the tyrannical flaws of his late father but none of his savvy strengths. On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Arafat's fading Fatah faction, is a good man who's being permanently sidelined by Hamas.
Yesterday's titans made history. Today's pols are pushed around by it. They are prisoners, not masters, of their politics and constituencies. And it's hard to see anyone better on the horizon.