Trying to compensate for the absence of urgency, will, and leadership among Arabs and Israelis by inserting your own has always been a tough assignment. The painful truth is that faith in America's capacity to fix the Arab-Israeli issue has always been overrated. It's certainly no coincidence that every breakthrough from the Egypt-Israel treaty to the Oslo accords to the Israel-Jordan peace agreement came initially as a consequence of secret meetings about which the United States was the last to know. Only then, once there was local ownership or some regional crisis that the United States could exploit, were we able to move things forward.
Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Fortuna might still rescue the president. The mullahcracy in Tehran might implode. The Syrians and Israelis might reach out to one another secretly, or perhaps a violent confrontation will flare up to break the impasse.
But without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere, it's going to be tough to re-create the good old days when bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders strode the stage of history, together with Americans, willing and able to do serious peacemaking.
I remember attending Rabin's funeral in 1995 in Jerusalem and trying to convince myself that America must and could save the peace process that had been so badly undermined by his assassination. I'm not a declinist. I still believe in the power of American diplomacy when it's tough, smart, and fair. But the enthusiasm, fervor, and passion have given way to a much more sober view of what's possible. Failure can do that.
The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who probably didn't know much about the Middle East, said it best: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, then in half the creeds." And maybe, if that leads to more realistic thinking when it comes to America's view of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, that's not such a bad thing.