Downbeat Clinton looks to improve his credit rating

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton is approaching his tour of the Middle East, beginning today, with a downbeat air that may not be exhilarating but seems realistic.

He hopes to claim a little of the credit for the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and he wants to edge forward the negotiations between Israel and Syria.

His first stop, in Cairo, symbolises the complex inheritance of US policy in the region. He will be obliged to utter support for President Hosni Mubarak, whose regime is fighting a fundamentalist uprising. Egypt is the world's second- largest recipient of US aid, a reward for its 1979 treaty with Israel. However, some Egyptian officials fear the US may be hedging its bets in the event of a fundamentalist takeover.

Also in Cairo, Mr Clinton will renew his acquaintance with the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat and will urge him to get tough with his own fundamentalists in the Hamas movement, to place a higher priority on efficient self- goverment and to press ahead in talks with Israel. Mr Arafat will complain that Israel is hampering progress in the talks, thus encouraging Hamas. He will lament the slow arrival of funds from foreign donors to the new Palestine and make promises of bureaucratic reform, which he may even sincerely believe.

Mr Clinton moves on to Aqaba in Jordan tomorrow to meet King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel. The formal signature of a peace treaty between those two former enemies will form the media centrepiece of the Clinton tour. Mr Rabin's peace policy has ensured that relations between Washington and the government in Jerusalem are at their warmest for a decade. Israel's unmatched dollars 3bn in annual US aid is safe. King Hussein, for his part, has been forgiven for his support of Baghdad during the Gulf war. Mr Clinton will find him full of persuasive advice for the cause of moderation.

Any advice will be welcome on the President's next stop - Damascus. Mr Clinton's meeting with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria does not necessarily portend a diplomatic triumph. 'I don't expect a dramatic breakthrough,' he admitted yesterday.

Twenty years after the famous Kissinger peace shuttle, President Assad is back in the position he enjoys as arbiter of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Mr Clinton's schedulers have allotted a remarkably short time for the meeting.

Successive Secretaries of State have experienced President Assad's customary technique, which is to grant his visitor an overview of Western policy towards the Levant. Normally that begins with the Crusades, to proceed via the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement to the wars of 1967 and 1973.

When Mr Clinton and Mr Assad get down to present business they may find their perceptions are nearer than those of past American and Syrian leaders.

Only this week Mr Clinton observed that 'the best way to end terrorism in the Middle East is to have a comprehensive peace settlement'. Such sentiments could have been taken from any editorial in Syria's official newspapers during the past decade. Mr Clinton will gain Syrian confidence by placing any Syrian-Israeli agreement in the context of a comprehensive peace. But he still needs to narrow the gap between Syria and Israel over the contested territory on the Golan Heights, conquered by Israel in 1967.

These are modest aims. Mr Clinton's advisers know the Middle East is treacherous territory for US Presidents. Richard Nixon, the last President to visit Damascus, took the world to the brink of a nuclear confrontation during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Jimmy Carter's presidency was debilitated by the 444-day captivity of 52 American diplomats.

Ronald Reagan threatened 'terrorist nations' but his second term was tainted by the Iran-Contra scandal. George Bush found his masterly conduct of the Gulf war alliance against Iraq overshadowed by Saddam Hussein's survival.

Mr Clinton is already managing that conflict's legacy and he goes on to visit US troops recently deployed in Kuwait. He will also meet King Fahd of Saudi Arabia before returning home.

(Map omitted)

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