Russia policy is in disarray, relations with China are still shaky, and Kosovo faces an uncertain future. For that matter, things aren't going so well with Congress, either. But as President Clinton contemplates his legacy as a statesman, administration officials say he is drawing sustenance from an unexpected source: the Middle East.
Yesterday, Clinton pledged at the start of a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that the United States will do "whatever we can to help" the Palestinians and Israel achieve their goal of reaching a final peace settlement by next September.
While many analysts doubt the two sides can resolve their differences so soon, aides describe Clinton as convinced that the political stars in the region have never been more favorably aligned. For that reason, they say, the president has identified a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon as his top foreign policy objective during his remaining 14 months in office.
Clinton's enthusiasm stems in part from his close relationship with Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Arafat, both of whom have been in frequent contact with the president since Barak's visit here in July, a senior U.S. official said.
It was these contacts, officials said, that enabled Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to overcome Arafat's doubts about Barak and helped to secure his agreement this month to a modified version of the Wye accord, the long-deferred land-for-peace deal brokered by Clinton outside Washington last October.
"The president really has an extraordinary ability to understand every side's needs," said a White House official in an assessment echoed, at least for the moment, by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. "The Israelis would consider him the most pro-Israeli president they ever had, and the Palestinians would, without a doubt, see him as the most pro-Palestinian president they ever had."
"I think [Arafat] was really encouraged by President Clinton," concurred Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, in a telephone interview. "He trusts President Clinton so much."
But Clinton's ability to maintain that trust--and Washington's role as the "honest broker" of Middle East peacemaking--may be sorely tested in the months ahead.
Besides spelling out a timetable for additional West Bank troop withdrawals--and mandating the release of 350 Palestinian prisoners--the agreement signed by Arafat and Barak at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh on Sept. 5 commits both sides to the goal of a "framework" peace agreement by Feb. 13. Last week, Israel and the Palestinians formally opened the framework talks, which will force them to set aside the incremental approach of previous accords and confront directly such momentous "final status" issues as the future of Jerusalem, borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Given that Israel is by far the stronger negotiating partner, and thus has less incentive to compromise, analysts say Clinton may have little choice but to exert pressure on Israel if he is serious about closing the yawning gaps between the two sides on final status issues. That, however, may prove difficult for the president given the electoral aspirations of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Gore, who have been courting Jewish voters.
"It would require very heavy involvement [by the president] and he would have to say things to Barak that he would not want to hear," said William Quandt, a former Middle East specialist on the National Security Council who teaches at the University of Virginia. "The politics of this are going to be that those closest to him will say, 'Don't get too involved in this,' and Barak's going to say the same thing."
In light of such challenges, Quandt and other experts have somewhat higher hopes for a settlement between Israel and Syria, which hinges on the fate of the Golan Heights, a strategic border highland captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. There too, however, Clinton's personal involvement could prove crucial. During a stop in Damascus earlier this month, Albright failed to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad to resume talks with Israel that broke off in 1996, prompting speculation at the State Department that Assad is waiting for a visit by the president himself.
Administration officials say they are under no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead, particularly with regard to Israeli-Palestinian talks. They emphasize, however, that Clinton and Albright are determined not to overstep their traditional role as "facilitators"--Albright used the term "handmaiden" during her recent trip to the Middle East--and that only the parties themselves can resolve such monumental questions as the future of Jerusalem.
"The way they will develop a relationship is by solving problems together," said a senior official accompanying Albright on her Middle East tour. On the other hand, he added, "We may come in . . . to reassure them and to offer an idea. . . . The mere fact that we're doing it carries a certain moral weight."
During Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's tenure, relations between the two sides deteriorated so badly that the administration had no choice but to assume a more active role--as occurred last October, when Clinton presided over nine grueling days of talks that produced the Wye accord. That yeoman effort, according to Palestinian and U.S. officials, cemented Arafat's faith in the American president.
"Without President Clinton we would have stayed there two hours," Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said of the Wye negotiations.
Clinton's understanding of Arafat's political needs proved useful during Barak's first visit to Washington as prime minister in June. "The president tried to sensitize Barak to what had gone on over the last three years," the official said. "He explained that what Arafat really will need is to get something up front."
By the same token, the official added, Clinton's hours of talks with Barak enabled him to make the case to Arafat that the Israeli proposal to modify the Wye accord was worth considering, and that Barak was serious about peace. A breakthrough occurred in July, a few hours after the funeral of Morocco's King Hassan II in the capital of Rabat, when Clinton and a handful of his foreign policy aides urged Arafat to consider Barak's proposal in a meeting at the Hilton Hotel.
Clinton "tried to explain what Barak's political considerations" were in seeking to modify the accord, recalled one of the American participants. "He tried to talk to him as one politician to another."
Swayed by the president's appeal, Arafat authorized Erekat to begin talks with his Israeli counterpart three days later. Clinton kept up his campaign to close the deal while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, speaking to Barak and Arafat in repeated conversations that lasted up to two hours, according to White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.
"I think he spent more time on this than he did playing golf," Lockhart said.
Fresh from their success in Sharm el Sheikh, administration officials are upbeat about the prospects for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But the Palestinians predict that--handmaidens or not--Clinton and his aides will inevitably find themselves called upon to broker a solution.
"I'm sure the Americans will find themselves 24 hours a day in business on peace in the Middle East," Erekat said. "I give them eight to nine weeks" before they are back in the thick of it.