WASHINGTON – Mideast peacemaking hasn't changed much since Israel and Egypt fought to a draw in their 1973 war and shuttle diplomacy emerged as the high-profile vehicle for U.S. intervention.
Certainly, a constant since then is that only the United States has sufficient standing with the Arabs and Israel to be considered a generally evenhanded and trusted mediator.
That reputation remains intact 34 years later as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares for negotiations next week at Annapolis, Md., between Israel and the Palestinians as part of an effort to set up a Palestinian state alongside a shrunken, predominantly Jewish one.
"The real significance of Annapolis is what happens in the year that is left to the Bush administration," said Aaron David Miller, long a member of U.S. peace team and now at the Wilson Center. "The real question is, 'Does Annapolis have legs?"'
There is little precedent for instant success, and Rice has not shown much inclination to shuttle between the parties.
It took three separate and extensive journeys by Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state who invented the role of the uniquely trusted American mediator, to induce Israel and Egypt to separate their forces and think seriously of making peace.
Still, it wasn't until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Kissinger in the role in 1978 that the two countries agreed to make peace — and even then Carter had to travel to the region to keep the accord reached under his close supervision at Camp David from flying apart.
Israel relinquished all of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for diplomatic recognition by the most powerful Arab country, and the principle of land-for-peace became enshrined as a guide to peacemaking in the landmark 1979 treaty.
Not much has changed since. There have been far more false starts than successes — most prominently President Clinton's near-miss with Israel and the Palestinians in July 2000, near the end of his two terms in the White House.
Nor did Clinton's hands-on mediating between Israel and Syria at Shepherdstown, W.Va., in January 2000 produce peace between the two longtime antagonists.
Israel and Jordan, already inclined to come to terms, were gently guided to a peace treaty mostly of their making in 1994.
In contrast, the mutual recognition agreement between Israel and Yasser Arafat's PLO at the White House in 1993 was followed by several accords under the so-called Oslo process but they turned out to be a precedent only for a decade of quarreling and violence, which the Bush administration hopes to turn around.
Unlike the Palestinian situation, the Bush administration has made little effort to go down that road again, while it joined with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in 2002 to produce a roadmap for peacemaking with Palestinian statehood a final-stage goal. President Bush, indeed, was the first U.S. president to publicly promise the Palestinians a state.
Dennis Ross, a senior U.S. negotiator through most of this peacemaking period, is skeptical that much will emerge from the Annapolis talks.
Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ross doubted Bush would follow Carter and Clinton's precedent for direct involvement in the talks. "This president will never be like Clinton. He will never know the issues. He will not throw himself into it."
David Makovsky, a former journalist and an analyst at the Institute, described Annapolis as "a beginning, a launch and not the culmination of a diplomatic breakthrough."
Nevertheless, seasoned analysts see great merit in getting Israel and its neighbors talking. The Madrid peace conference in 1991, arranged by the George H.W. Bush administration jointly with the Soviet Union, was a pivotal effort to open direct talks between Israel and the Arabs. But the results in the 16 years since are mixed.
"It is always easier to begin a negotiation than to end it successfully," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute. "So, in my view, Annapolis is doomed to succeed, because we have now defined success as the beginning of negotiations."
Rice has rolled back her expectations and now describes Annapolis as the beginning of a process, Satloff said.
Originally, Miller said in an interview, Rice wanted to produce a conference that would result in a document that would address the conflict over Jerusalem, borders between Israel and a new Palestinian state, refugee issues and security.
"In the past two months, expectations have collided with reality," Miller said. "So the secretary is now back to trying to open a process. And it is likely to launch permanent status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."
Whatever else, Miller said, "it will change the pictures on the TV set. They have been pretty bad with violence and no negotiations."