"She crumbled," ace detective Phillip Marlowe observed in one of the greatest lines in Raymond Chandler's classic 1939 novel The Big Sleep, "like a new bride's pie crust."
And so, come to think of it, has the Obama administration's approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Thirty months in, a self-styled transformative president with big ideas and ambitions as a peacemaker finds himself with no negotiations, no peace process, no relationship with an Israeli prime minister, no traction with Palestinians, and no strategy to achieve a breakthrough.
Indeed, in the wake of the publicly orchestrated extravaganza also known as the Benjamin Netanyahu visit last week, we seem to have speechified ourselves farther away than ever from serious peacemaking. Israelis and Palestinians are running in the opposite direction: Mahmoud Abbas to virtual statehood at the United Nations in September; Netanyahu to the belief that Israel doesn't need a credible strategy to cope with what's coming.
There's great temptation in all of this to saddle the Obama administration with the lion's share of responsibility for this unhappy state of affairs. But that would be wrong, inaccurate, and decidedly unfair.
The president, to be sure -- perhaps with the best intentions and the worst analysis -- has made a complex situation more complicated. But the preponderance of blame surely rests with the locals' incapacity and unwillingness to get real and serious about what it would take to reach an agreement.
Let's be clear: The chance of a conflict-ending agreement (and I choose my words carefully here) that allows Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the four core issues -- borders, Jerusalem, security, and refugees -- appears to be slim to none. Anything short of that (borders first; an interim agreement, etc.) seems beyond the interest or will of the two sides to consider or take seriously. "Been there, done that," seems to govern Palestinian thinking. "I don't want to do that," seems to shape Israel's.
The reasons for this impasse aren't hard to identify.
There are big gaps on the big issues, even on territory (the least hopeless one) as evidenced by the brouhaha over Obama's mention of the June 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. The meaningless but oft-repeated line -- that everyone knows what the solution will be -- only serves to inspire false confidence and trivializes how hard it will be to get there.
Weak leaders, or at least leaders who are prisoners of their political constituencies (not masters of them), compound the problem. Bibi may want to be great, but coalition politics, ideology, and his own fears constrain him.
Abbas too wants legacy; but he's presiding over a national movement that despite newfound virtual unity with Hamas still looks like Noah's Ark: there are two of everything -- security services, charters, visions for Palestine, and patrons. It's a long way from the one gun, one authority, one negotiating position that is the essence of sovereignty -- and indispensable for a conflict-ending accord on the Palestinian side. Nor is the regional situation all that conducive for a breakthrough. (Or at least let's agree that it's an arguable proposition.)
Some believe that the transformative changes now loose in the Arab world have increased the incentives and the pressure for a deal. On one hand, democratic reforms and movements seem to be breaking out all over and the Arabs appear focused more on internal matters than wanting this issue resolved. On the other, Arab public opinion will now be more influential and could become more radicalized. So, let's hurry up and make a deal.