Clinton risks exposing limits of his influence

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The Independent Online
It is a summit on which the future of what is still referred to as the Middle East peace process may well depend. Yet 24 hours before its advertised opening, no one was quite sure who would attend, how long it would last, how the talks will be arranged, what topics they would deal with; even whether the two protagonists would actually meet face to face.

Such was the situation here on the eve of the most vital peace-making initiative of the Clinton Presidency, forced upon him in the midst of a presidential election campaign, just as he was about to prepare for an important televised debate with his Republican opponent, Bob Dole. In fact the two events - the desperate, improvised bid for a truce between Israelis and Palestinians and the choreographed debate over whose format negotiators jockeyed for weeks - have become inextricably entwined.

This was supposed to have been a quiet week by Bill Clinton's hectic standards; a little campaigning, signature of spending bills for the fiscal year 1997 and then, on Thursday, a three-day retreat to ready himself for the confrontation with Mr Dole. Those plans now hang by a thread. Dismissing with most undiplomatic brusqueness Yasser Arafat's request for a postponement, the White House insisted the summit would be held today and on Wednesday. "We expect the meeting to proceed as the President announced," his spokesman, Mike McCurry, said.

What Mr McCurry did not dwell on were Mr Clinton's plans should the discussions get bogged down, or if US mediation at the highest levels proves the only means of moving them forward. Would he depart none the less with his debate briefing books, even at the risk of a spectacular foreign policy failure that could place him on the defensive with Mr Dole? The answer is, surely not.

Be it domestic or foreign affairs, no one calculates the political consequences of a given move more carefully than Mr Clinton. Yet in this instance he had little choice. In his own words on Sunday, the violence in Israel was "spinning out of control", threatening not merely to set back, but to destroy the entire "peace process" pursued since 1991 by a Republican and a Democratic president alike. Virtually ignored during the first days of the crisis, the US had to act, whatever the risks, to preserve its own credibility.

And these risks are not negligible. The conventional wisdom is that the President has little to lose: a successful outcome would be a colossal boon to his campaign, projecting him as a president using the weight of his office, dispelling some fresh doubts over his competence in foreign policy. Even breakdown need not be disastrous: the American electorate have watched enough presidents grapple with the Middle East to understand that even a combination of Bismark, Machiavelli and Marcus Aurelius would find the problem intractable. Like his predecessors, Mr Clinton will be judged to have done his best.

The real danger lies in the US being snubbed, or being shown to have no influence on proceedings. Hence its bluntness as Mr Arafat hesitated. Hence too the ill-concealed disappointment that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak will not be coming, failing any guarantee that Israel would take any serious step towards the Palestinians, either on the archaeological tunnel by the al-Aqsa mosque, or on the wider issue of implementing the Oslo peace accords.

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