The agonizing, decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has seen its fleeting moments of hope before. None of them amounted to anything, but it remains at least possible that the next effort could succeed, based on changing conditions and building on the blocks -- or perhaps the rubble -- of previous efforts.
That's one of the reasons this week's high-profile conference in Annapolis, Md., started out hopefully, with both sides pledging "to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations," aimed at "resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception." They promised to "make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."
Don't hold your breath. That agenda is so ambitious it's implausible. The best approach to this summit is one of low expectations.
Besides the declaration, which now looms so large, the process of execution is a minefield. While give-backs to the Palestinians will be fought by many Israelis, Israel is at least a democracy. But Palestinian territory is now more fragmented than ever, split into two areas, with violent protests against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even in his own West Bank.
Nevertheless, the goal is the right one. Only by keeping their eyes on the prize of normal, safe and productive lives for their people can Palestinians and Israelis hope to make the painful compromises that will be necessary.
It's a huge undertaking and it may fail, like every other attempt to bring peace to this tortured region, but perhaps the players may have learned something from the past while understanding that conditions today are vastly different from just a decade ago.
The central difference is the rise of Iran, which is seeking nuclear technology along with a dominant role in the region. That, perhaps more than any other factor, explains the willingness of so many Arab nations to attend the Annapolis summit, to the dismay of both Iran and Hamas, the government/terrorist organization that controls the Palestinian parliament and has taken over Gaza.
Those nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, want to staunch the flow of power to Iran and they know where the tourniquet must go: on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That creates a real opportunity for a new dynamic in peace negotiations, even if it grows from a paradox. Iran draws its new stature largely from the chaos in Iraq. The Bush administration, which pushed hard for this conference, is also, however unintentionally, a primary architect of its perilous backdrop.
No doubt, those factors go a long way toward explaining the willingness of so many nations to take part in this conference. Even Syria, itself a longtime sponsor of terrorism, agreed to attend, though in doing so it may merely be continuing its policy of playing both ends against the middle.
Indeed, the conference creates a huge opening for back-channel, off-the-record maneuvering. What is happening behind the scenes is at least as important as the developments that occur in the open. And many consequences may flow from the summit. Real progress could marginalize Hamas, if Palestinians come to view the organization as blocking their chances for a homeland. That, in turn, could lead to rising violence between Palestinian factions, as Hamas and Fatah, led by Abbas, vie for supremacy.
Key to any chance of success is the involvement of the United States. President Bush shunned this role for the past seven years, but now that he has finally taken it on, he will have to be fully engaged and willing to use the nation's influence to help the two sides bridge their differences. Even with that, the chances of success are not great, but without it, they are nil.