WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton departs tomorrow on a trip that represents a calculated political risk at home but could give a significant boost to the unfolding peace process in the Middle East.
Some of Mr. Clinton's own political advisers have warned that his decision to embark on the most extensive presidential journey in the region in two decades will reduce his campaign time in support of Democratic candidates on the eve of high-stakes national elections. (Closer look at Hamas movement, Page 2).
It is a judgment shared by some Republicans.
``This is great news,'' says pollster Fred Steeper, whose Southfield, Mich., market-research firm is advising a number of Republican candidates. ``He's dealing with foreign-policy matters rather than Republicans. That leaves the way open for the GOP to define the meaning of election.''
But in the end, a different logic has prevailed among the president's closest aides. They calculate that Clinton will have more to gain than lose by canceling campaign appearances, striking a presidential pose on the world stage, and advertising the latest in a string of significant recent foreign-policy successes.
``All he can do in the campaign is get beat up. When he's in the Middle East, he gets great air time, and he looks presidential,'' a Washington-based political analyst says.
During a whirlwind four-day journey that begins tomorrow, Clinton will join 5,000 dignitaries to watch the signing of a peace treaty that will bring a 46-year state of war between Israel and Jordan to an end.
After addressing the parliaments of both countries, in Amman and Jerusalem, Clinton will pay a call on US troops in Kuwait and visit King Fahd in Saudi Arabia. Before returning home, he will stop in Cairo to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In addition to focusing international attention on the peace signing, Clinton's presence will send yet another strong signal to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad that the Middle East peace process is moving ahead without him. Syria and Lebanon are the only front-line states that have not yet made peace with Israel.
Following a lengthy debate among his advisers, Clinton announced Friday that he would include a stopover in Damascus on his trip. The decision is likely to draw controversy since Syria remains on the US's list of states that sponsor terrorism.
But administration officials point out that Syria is the crucial missing link in the peace process and the key to stopping attacks by Iran-backed Hizbullah factions based in southern Lebanon.
US officials caution against expecting any breakthrough with Syria but are counting on President Assad to reaffirm his commitment to find a formula for peace, one that would be based on the full normalization of relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
``The fact that Clinton is attending is a form of endorsement that gives the Jordan-Israel agreement more force and visibility,'' notes Robert Lieber, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University in Washington. ``Indirectly it is a significant and worthwhile step, because it shows that other countries are moving forward with the peace process without waiting [for the Arab world] to move forward in unison.''
The stakes of the treaty signing have been underscored three times during the past two weeks by deadly terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinian extremists against Israel. The latest, which occurred last Wednesday when a suicide bomber blew a bus apart on one of Tel Aviv's busiest thoroughfares, claimed 23 lives.
Although Clinton has been a cheerleader in the peace process, his administration has played little direct role in brokering the treaty that will be signed on Wednesday.
From the start of his presidency, Clinton made it clear to Middle Eastern leaders, as one history of the peace negotiations notes, that ``the American government could not solve the Middle East problem if the Arabs and Israelis did not want to solve it themselves.''
``The Clinton policy has been to do nothing, which is a brilliant policy,'' says Mark Perry, author of ``A Fire in Zion.'' ``The real initiators of the peace treaty have been the Israelis and Jordanians themselves.'' But Mr. Perry and other analysts note that by providing strong moral support, dispatching Secretary of State Warren Christopher on at least five peace missions to the region, and offering financial incentives to the parties involved -
including debt relief to Jordan - the administration has earned a measure of credit for peace.
Though Clinton has been shunned by many Democratic office seekers, he is nevertheless the only Democrat who can frame the election in Democratic terms: a healthy economy, peace in the world, the GOP as the source of gridlock in Congress. That's what adds the element of risk to Clinton's decision to quit the political scene for the Middle East.
``It used to be a plus to attend the signing of an agreement like this, but now I think it's a slight negative,'' says Fred Steeper, a former pollster for George Bush. ``It's not that people oppose what he's doing. It's just that they have more pressing problems at home.''
Clinton has racked up a string of foreign-policy successes in recent weeks, including his strong stand against Iraq in the Gulf and the restoration of Haiti's democratically elected President Jean- Bertrand Aristide.
In political terms such successes ``hardly add up to anything because that's not what this election is about,'' says Steeper. ``This election is about health care and keeping criminals behind bars. It's not about Iraq or Haiti.''