But Clinton is still a hero at home

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER THE twists and turns of talks that eventually brought yesterday's agreement, President Bill Clinton's diplomatic achievement has been remarkable: not in international terms, but domestically. The Wye memorandum is only an interim settlement: it puts the peace process enshrined in the Oslo accords back on track, but it does not contain even the seeds of a breakthrough for the next, crucial stage of negotiations, on border arrangements and the status of Jerusalem.

For the home audience, and for Mr Clinton personally, however, the mere passage of the talks was a stroke of diplomatic genius. The whole of the White House press corps, State Department correspondents and American domestic punditry was corralled round the clock in the grounds of a small college in Maryland, about 70 miles from Washington, preoccupied with one story alone: advancing peace in the Middle East.

There was little spare media capacity to cover the story that has dominated America's airwaves with only brief periods of respite since January: the Monica Lewinsky affair and the prospect of impeachment. Even the news yesterday that Mr Clinton had made a formal confession of that affair by letter to his home church in Arkansas and received forgiveness from the highly critical Southern Baptists, went almost unremarked.

For 10 days straight, President Clinton was alternately invisible - closeted in the White House, musing perhaps about the Middle East - or highly visible, announcing the budget deal, appearing with his wife at a breast cancer event, but above all, commuting by presidential helicopter to the Wye conference centre as international peacemaker par excellence.

All the visual trappings of the presidency were on show: the walk across the White House lawn, the military salute as he boarded the helicopter and disembarked, some pictures (often fuzzy to suggest their highly confidential nature) of the US President talking, or lunching with Benjamin Netanyahu or Yasser Arafat. Always impeccably suited, always serious in countenance, Mr Clinton was re-establishing his standing as President.

With media attention focused on a secluded corner of Maryland and elevated affairs of state, Mr Clinton's absence from the mid-term election campaign trail - a complete contrast with his ubiquitous presence four years ago - went unremarked. The brunt of campaigning in the past fortnight has been borne by Hillary Clinton, now as welcome a fundraiser as her husband and far less likely to draw embarrassing questions, and Vice-President Al Gore.

For Mr Clinton, yesterday's formal signing ceremony at which he was flanked by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and had a document to show for his pains, was a bonus. The Wye talks successfully kept him in the limelight as President and statesman, while shielding him - and the Democrats facing election - from the Lewinsky scandal. That is no mean feat.