Leading article: How to hobble the President of the United States

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BILL CLINTON will cut a biblical figure in Gaza this week: a hairless Samson, a distracted Solomon, a once-powerful mediator unable to persuade either warring side to stick to the path of righteousness and peace. This is a lame-duck President, and the semi-collapse of the Middle East peace process is one good reason why a reprehensible but essentially trivial affair with an intern matters to the world.

It was widely assumed, after the failure of the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, to convince the American people that their President had done anything seriously wrong, that Mr Clinton was over the worst. But public opinion is only one of the checks and balances in the United States constitution, and is not the most important of them.

So the impeachment process kept rolling along, in defiance of public opinion and even of common sense, following a series of logical switches that has taken it ever further away from dodgy land deals in Arkansas and yet has closed in on the President as if he were in a paranoid dream.

On Thursday, Mr Clinton's nightmare will either end, or will descend another big step into the pit of nameless dangers. If the House of Representatives votes against all four draft articles of impeachment, there is still time for the Kid to make one last Comeback, and to redeem his presidency in its last two years. Middle East peace, the global environment and the threat of recession at home are all challenges on which a reinvigorated President could make his mark.

If, on the other hand, the House votes to send even one article of impeachment to the Senate, then Mr Clinton will be remembered in history as a failure. Fundamentally, such a vote would change nothing. For all its resonance in American politics, the word "impeach" simply means "indict" or "charge", and, if the President is impeached, that means a majority of Representatives believe he has a case to answer. It is the Senate, the upper house of Congress, that has to convict him, and by a two-thirds majority which Mr Clinton's opponents know they cannot muster.

So there is no question of Mr Clinton's being forced from office. But impeachment would be a historic humiliation: it has happened only once before. More importantly, it would mean that the diversion of the energies of White House staff and of the President himself would continue. There would have to be hearings, and Mr Clinton and Monica Lewinsky would both be called to give evidence.

This week, Mr Clinton will be on the telephone back to Washington almost all the time he is in Israel and the embryo Palestinian state. If the House votes for impeachment on Thursday, it will vote for the United States to continue to be hobbled in the all-important work of building a better world.