President Barack Obama is trying his luck in the Holy Land this week. He is holding meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah. Clearly Middle East peacemaking is on the agenda -- though nobody is expecting much progress, let alone a breakthrough.
Still, the U.S. president is a determined man. I suspect that one way or another -- before all the sand runs out of the presidential hourglass -- he'll try to leave his mark on the peace process, most likely by laying out a series of parameters that will define how to resolve the conflict's core issues.
The world of negotiations did not begin with the Obama administration. History's lessons are still important -- they won't guarantee success, but ignoring them will almost certainly produce failure.
As the president (and his able secretary of state) consider what they might want to do about the knotty problem of the much-too promised land, here are 11 facts to keep in mind.
1. Presidential visits aren't a given: Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, only four U.S. presidents (out of 11) have visited while in office: Richard Nixon (once), Jimmy Carter (once), Bill Clinton (four times), and George W. Bush (twice). And with the exception of Carter -- who took a real risk in February and March 1979 by traveling to Egypt and Israel to nail down the terms of a peace treaty -- the other trips were far less consequential.
Nixon's trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration's deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed. The visit was a strange affair, maybe an escape from the raging Watergate scandal: At one point, while discussing terrorism with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Nixon jumped up, exclaiming that there was only one way to deal with terror and sprayed the assembled cabinet ministers with imaginary machine-gun fire, Chicago gangland style.
Clinton, who was identified with and committed to the Oslo peace process, went to mark the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994, again in 1995 to attend Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, in 1996 to try to keep the peace process alive in the wake of Rabin's assassination and Hamas terror attacks, and finally to address the Palestinian National Council in 1998. Of Bush's two trips, one of them was to participate in a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, which had no chance of producing any meaningful agreement -- or even a credible way forward.
Lesson: Anyone who expects the president to achieve big things on this foray - or is pushing the president to try -- isn't thinking clearly.