Clinton sees his credibility on the line

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The visit of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the White House today offers not merely an eleventh-hour chance of halting the collapse of the "peace process". It also gives President Bill Clinton perhaps his last opportunity to preserve his and America's credibility as even-handed brokers of a settlement.

For much of his first term, Mr Clinton had little short of a charmed life with the Middle East. The former secretary of state Warren Christopher might be criticised, but he himself could savour moments like the 1993 "handshake summit" between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israel- Jordan treaty, even the recent Hebron agreement, prematurely hailed by the Administration as a major triumph that would pave the way to peace.

Mr Clinton risked no significant political capital and, notwithstanding the arrival in power of the hardline Mr Netanyahu, he could claim the Middle East as a foreign-policy success in the 1996 election campaign, proof of America's role as the "indispensable nation" in global affairs.

But the crisis has moved beyond even Mr Clinton's ability to charm, blur differences and buy time. This time blunt talking is required, to Mr Netanyahu in particular. The Administration's refusal to put public pressure on Israel has convinced Arabs that Washington will invariably side with Israel, to which the US response is that sensitive Middle East diplomacy is more effective conducted in the Oval Office than by the UN.

But the storm over the Har Homa settlement in Jerusalem has eliminated all wiggle room. Through the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the US has signalled its displeasure at "thickening" of settlements, but on the eve of the Prime Minister's departure, his Cabinet Secretary, Danny Naveh, said construction "will continue."

US officials claimed to have "new ideas" to nudge the process, which Mr Clinton would put to Mr Netanyahu in the Oval Office, and to Mr Arafat by phone. But they provided no details.

Mr Netanyahu's proposal to leapfrog step-by-step implementation of the Oslo accords and go for a comprehensive settlement within six months, tackling the toughest issues of all, like borders and the status of Jerusalem, is regarded with mixed feelings here. Officially, Washington calls the idea "premature," especially the idea of a marathon head-to-head session similar to the 1978 Camp David meeting that led to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

But even US officials wonder whether Mr Netanyahu's strategy now is not to humiliate the Palestinians with faits accomplis like Har Homa, even if they goad the Palestinians into acts of violence. A resurgence of terrorism would let Mr Netanyahu blame them for the collapse of a "peace process" he has disliked from the outset.