This is the tragedy of America's situation now in the Promised Land: Never has the Arab-Israeli issue been more critical to...

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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-Qaida 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 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relations has changed: The confidence, trust and problem-solving spirit of the 1990s Oslo peace process have been replaced by unilateralism, fear, anger and a loss of faith in the power of negotiations to alter cruel realities on the ground.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:

Weak leaders

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.

Strong spoilers

In this leadership vacuum, non-state actors have wreaked havoc. Hamas and the radical Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah are more than just the garden-variety terrorists and thugs who, in the old days, could retard but not block peacemaking efforts. The new spoilers are serious political players. Hamas can constrain and even block Abbas’s peace efforts; Hezbollah showed during its summer 2006 war with Israel that it can embarrass Israel’s army and bombard its north. These groups — backed by Iran and Syria — can create huge problems for weak leaders already unwilling to take risks.

Vast gaps

The old conventional wisdom was that we knew what an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would look like and just needed to somehow land it. But anyone who still believes that Israelis and Palestinians were “this close” to an agreement at Camp David has been talking to the peace-process fairy too much.

The hard fact is that each of the four titanic issues that sank the summit — borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and security — represent a universe of serious unfinished business. (And that’s not for lack of trying during the Clinton years; when I think about our efforts to convince Barak and Arafat that the way to solve the problem of who would own Jerusalem’s holiest sites was to hand sovereignty over them to God, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.)

Hammering out an agreement to end the conflict was too hard in 2000, and it’s almost unthinkable in 2007.

America absent

Finally, and perhaps most important, since January 2001, we just haven’t had the U.S. commitment to peacemaking that we’ve needed — an America that’s willing to build bridges when it can and crack heads when it must. Admittedly, the Bush administration inherited pretty much the worst imaginable Arab-Israeli hand: the balky Arafat on one side, the bulldozing Sharon on the other, and an Israeli-Palestinian war raging between them. Still, President Bush never saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as any kind of priority. Nor, in the aftermath of 9/11 and Iraq, did he ever believe that working the peace process might help him advance the Middle East issues he did care about.

Of course, Bush didn’t get many real opportunities. But after Arafat’s death in November 2004 and Abbas’s election in January 2005, he got one — a very real chance to put the Palestinians’ first post-Arafat leader to the test. But instead of stepping in with both feet, we watched from the sidelines with our post-9/11 contempt for serious diplomacy. Abbas faded; Hamas rose. Of course, Fatah’s own corruption and dysfunction were what elected Hamas in January 2006 — but we and the Israelis helped.

Now we want to act. And there are compelling reasons why. Dealing with the Arab-Israeli issue won’t eliminate radical Islamic terrorism, fix Iraq or turn dictatorships into democracies — but it will help marginalize our enemies, embolden our friends, attract those sitting on the fence and, above all, boost our credibility.

But I’m not holding my breath. And with the 2008 election cycle in full swing, few leaders in the region are expecting much out of a last rush of lame-duck diplomacy, either. With little prospect of success, too many other priorities and a lingering unwillingness to get tough with Arabs or Israelis, there’s not much chance for important diplomacy anymore.

If Bush still wanted to make a difference, however, he might consider not one “road map” (the term for a U.S.-backed peace plan nobody in the region believes in after years of U.S. apathy) but three. First, he should appoint a high-level, fully empowered envoy to directly work Israeli-Palestinian issues on the ground, including an end to violence and settlement activity, eased restrictions on Palestinian movement, economic revitalization of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held by Hamas since June 2006.

Second, Bush should encourage key Arab states to outline steps they’d take toward normalizing relations with Israel as the current deadlock eases, including a meeting soon between Israeli and Saudi officials. And finally, Rice should create a discreet Israeli-Palestinian back channel to probe whether any progress toward a lasting deal on the big issues would be possible if Washington finally waded back in.

In 2002, Bush laid out a vision of the only conceivable solution — Israel and Palestine living side by side — but did little to promote it. He now faces the very real prospect of watching the best and only answer to the conflict expire on his watch. That would be a tragedy for the United States and its friends — and a blessing for our enemies.

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state. His book “The Much Too Promised Land” will be published in 2008.