Short of intolerable carnage, there's no durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. None. The best all parties can hope for is an occasional time-out.
A respite between rounds isn't worthless, of course - lives are saved, Israel's economy improves and the Arabs get one more chance to get their act together. But we're forever disappointed because we're convinced there's a good, permanent solution, if only we can figure it out.
That's the American way: a can-do spirit, the conviction that no problem's too tough for us. But, in the real world (and in the bizarre fantasyland of Arab culture), some foreign problems can't be resolved equitably. They can only smolder on, occasionally erupting in flames.
In the Middle East, you can't buy peace. You can only buy time. If we want to help at all, the fundamental requirement is to have realistic expectations.
At present, the situation is aggravated by the Bush administration's desperate quest for a headline-worthy foreign-policy success - mirroring the Clinton administration in its closing years. But desperation's a poor basis for dealing with a geopolitical problem of near-infinite complexity, with ill will on every side except our own.
What happens in the course of Middle East "peace" talks under such circumstances? Whether the American administration is Republican or Democrat, it pressures Israel for concessions - since the Arabs won't make any. Prisoner releases precede each summit; territorial handovers come under discussion.
For their parts, Arab leaders and their representatives assume we're sufficiently honored if they just show up. We hear no end of nonsense about the great political risks they're taking, etc. We're suckers for any fat guy in a white robe with an oil can.
Today's session [Nov. 27] in Annapolis may or may not result in a we-the-undersigned statement or a few unenforceable commitments. And yes, there's merit just in bringing folks together and keeping them talking. But the baseline difficulty is that we want to solve problems for people who don't really want those problems solved.
Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, for example, couldn't accept a genuine peace tomorrow morning - even though Hamas' coup in Gaza has put them up against the wall. Their problem? The most successful jobs program in the Arab world has been Palestinian "resistance" to Israel.
Consider what peace with Israel - real peace - would mean in the West Bank and Gaza, in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley: Tens of thousands of gunmen (and terrorists) out of work, with no marketable skills - and radicalized by decades of fanatic rhetoric.
Think a punk who's grown accustomed to swaggering around town in a face mask with a Kalashnikov is going to scrub squat toilets for a living?
Generations have grown addicted to the struggle - and its perks. It's the only bearable justification for their individual and collective failures in life. Real peace with Israel would probably spark a convulsion throughout the Arab world - as tens of millions realized that their sacrifices were a travesty that merely empowered thieves.
Another reason Arab states won't make peace: Most of their leaders have only survived in power because they have Israel to blame for every disappointment their people face. Israel has become the great excuse for every self-wrought failure in the Middle East - and that excuse is more valuable to Arab rulers than peace could ever be.
Were peace ever to arrive, Arabs might begin to demand good government. And the corruption that has thrived during decades of crisis could come into question. Worst of all, Arabs might have to accept responsibility for the catastrophic condition of their own societies.
In the end, the problem's difficulty can be put in New York City terms: A shiftless, violent family that turned an apartment into a slum was evicted. The new tenants cleaned up the place and made the apartment a showcase. Now the former tenants hate them for it - and want the apartment back.
But the apartment can only accommodate one family.
If you want a sober perspective on the Annapolis dog-and-pony show, just ask yourself this: Who will leave disappointed, if nothing much results?
The Arabs won't care. They came because we got on our knees and begged.
The Israelis will just be relieved that their latest trip to the geostrategic dentist is over.
Any Russians soiling the furniture at the Naval Academy will be delighted if another American effort flops.
And the Europeans just popped in to check the "we care" box.
The only unhappy campers will be us. We set ourselves up. Again.
Oh, and even if there's some sort of agreement, only the Israelis will honor it. Grudgingly.
We're dealing with people who are fighting for their lives and homes. Our team's fighting for poll numbers. Now that's asymmetrical warfare.
By electing ourselves as the Middle East's indispensable problem-solvers, we've just put ourselves on the blame line for other people's problems. Without solving any of them.
Santa won't show up at Annapolis. If he did, the best gift he could bring the Bush administration and its Democratic rivals would be a sense of reality: It's a lot easier to believe in Santa than in Arabs accepting a just peace with Israel.