SINCE Jimmy Carter brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, every president but one - Ronald Reagan - has sought his legacy in the chimerical pursuit of Middle East peace.
The first President Bush was an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo process, which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. President Bill Clinton thought he could win the Nobel Peace Prize by brokering an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Their efforts mostly backfired. The economic well-being of the Palestinians declined precipitously under the rule of Yasser Arafat, who was a much better terrorist and thief than he was a head of state. The result of the peace deal Mr. Clinton brokered was the al Aqsa intifada. Only Adolf Hitler has killed more Jews than has the "peace process."
The recently concluded Annapolis Peace Conference will not lead to peace in the Middle East, for the reason best articulated by the leading Western authority on the Muslim world, Bernard Lewis. The conflict, he said, is either about the size of Israel, or about its existence:
"If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas," Professor Lewis wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
"If, on the other hand, the issue is about the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise position between existing and not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist."
Because the Palestinians are still unwilling to acknowledge (at least in public) the right of the Jewish state to exist, the "peace process" restarted in Annapolis can go nowhere. So is it a dangerous betrayal of Israel, as some conservative commentators think? A meaningless public relations exercise? Or a diplomatic minuet from which some good (though not the advertised good) can be achieved?
Annapolis would be a betrayal only if the United States coerces Israel into making territorial concessions that endanger its security. But Ehud Olmert, Israel's corrupt and incompetent prime minister, is too weak politically to make concessions without security guarantees that Mahmoud Abbas, the corrupt and incompetent president of (now just half of) the Palestinian Authority, is too weak politically to offer.
Commentary editor John Podhoretz saw nothing in the diplomatic blather at Annapolis to indicate President Bush has softened his commitment to recognize only a Palestinian state that gives up terror as a weapon and is a democracy. (Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Mr. Podhoretz concedes, has "gone native.")
That so many nations sent representatives to Annapolis gives the lie to Democratic charges the United States has lost diplomatic clout during the Bush Administration.
"The plain fact is that virtually all of the world's most influential nations, give or take a handful of despotic regimes, have been summoned to Annapolis and have agreed to come," noted former New York Daily News columnist (and Israeli government spokesman) Zev Chafets. "No other American president has ever assembled such a gathering."
There are a lot of quiet bilateral talks at gatherings like this one, and these may have been the point of the Annapolis conference. Chief among the "handful of despotic regimes" not invited was Iran. Saudi Arabia came, said Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "because they are worried about the rise of Iran and the radicals." If an unspoken purpose of the gathering was to isolate Iran, that purpose seems to have been advanced.
The invitation to Syria, Iran's junior partner in the Axis of Evil, drew scorn from Andrew McCarthy of National Review:
"Buried in Annapolis will be the last shards of the Bush Doctrine, the blunt marker the President once put down to signal a do-or-die choice for jihadist nations," he said.
I'm not so sure. Efforts to pry Syria from its alliance with Iran almost certainly will fail, but it costs little to make them. It doesn't hurt to talk to our enemies so long as we have realistic expectations of what can be accomplished with talk alone, and we are prepared to use sterner measures in the likely event that "dialogue" fails. As Winston Churchill, the 20th century's greatest realist, said: "Jaw Jaw is better than War War."