Washington pundits have an odd way of ridiculing the Bush administration's grandiose plans for remaking Iraq, while at the same time embracing ambitious designs for bringing peace to the Holy Land.
Hence many Middle East hands urge the United States to take a cautiously realistic approach to achieving ethnic and religious reconciliation in Mesopotamia. But these same Realpoliticos become born-again idealists in insisting that American leaders could and should help resolve the conflict between Arabs and Jews. As in Iraq, these peoples have been fighting since the British invaded in World War I. But, hey, Americans needs to show some faith to get the peace process moving ahead, right? So on to Annapolis.
The faith in America's ability to lead the Arabs and Israelis into the promised land of peace is grounded in one very unique historic event: The 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, achieved at Camp David through crucial mediation efforts by President Jimmy Carter. Since then, generations of American officials and experts, promoting the legend of President Carter's role as a "peacemaker," have been fantasizing about a sequel: Camp David II.
But notwithstanding President Carter's commitment to, and success in bringing about an Egyptian-Israeli peace, he didn't "make peace." Carter and his aides helped to facilitate an agreement ending 30 years of war between the Egyptians and the Israelis, reflecting the existing regional balance of power and what the two Middle Eastern players regarded as their national interests.
In fact, the Egyptian and the Israeli leaders agreed to meet at Camp David only after officials from both sides had agreed on the diplomatic formula that served as the basis for the negotiations there: Israel would return all of the occupied Sinai back to Egypt in return for Egyptian willingness to recognize the Jewish state. What both the Israelis and the Egyptians wanted and succeeded in winning at Camp David were American security commitments and economic assistance in exchange for signing a peace accord whose contours had been accepted in advance.
That President Bill Clinton's Camp David II sequel in 2000 ended up as a major disappointment had nothing to do his diplomatic skills. Clinton couldn't "make peace" because both the Israelis and the Palestinians had concluded that making painful concessions on core, existential national interests – dividing Jerusalem's holy sites; the "right of return" of the Arab refugees; the fate of the Jewish settlements – wouldn't be worth it to them. Each side calculated that using violence would end up forcing its adversary to surrender to its demands.
The sequel of 2000 created such high expectations that the Americans would "make peace" in the Middle East that Clinton's failure to deliver ignited more anti-Americanism among Arabs and Moslems – exacerbated after 9/11 – and the peace camp began losing political support in Israel.
From that perspective, President George W. Bush and his aides seemed to have learned the lessons of Camp David I and II when they decided that they need lower expectations this time in Annapolis. Hence their emphasis on making the Americans the facilitators of a potential peace accord that could only be achieved if and when the Israelis and the Palestinians conclude that the costs of continuing to fight are too high, and that they should make agonizing compromises over Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, and the Israeli settlements.
Today, a realist would see no sign that the Israelis and the Palestinians have reached such a stage – and that no amount of American diplomacy can make a difference now. But he might also point out that there are chances for an agreement between Israel and Syria – very much along the "territory-for-peace" formula that was applied at the original Camp David – if the two sides conclude that it's in their interest to reach one. As with peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, the United States couldn't make it happen, but it could help.