WHATEVER else may be said of President-elect Clinton's electoral sweep, it has come at a potentially inopportune moment for negotiators now gathered in Washington to hammer out a Middle East peace settlement.
Now poised at a critical juncture, the year-old peace process could still be brought to fruition by a Clinton administration as determined and as personally engaged as President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker III have been.
But any tilt in United States policy or any diminution of US interest in the process could lead to a breakdown, even as the peace talks show their first significant signs of progress.
"The way this peace process has been structured, it's very vulnerable and highly personalized," says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "Any change in the terms of reference or any drastic change in personnel managing the peace process could cause the process to implode."
One concern voiced by Arabs and Israelis alike is that if Mr. Clinton devotes his full energies to rebuilding the economy at home, as he has promised to do in countless campaign speeches, his administration will be unable to provide the kind of daily nurturing needed to keep the peace process on track. They worry that any slowdown could lead to a breakdown.
"How do you use the State Department to make the economy grow and still take advantage of opportunities [for peace] in the Middle East?" asks Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In addition to a possible hiatus in the peace process, Arab leaders are wary of Clinton's nearly unqualified support for Israel, a position buttressed by policy advisers known to have strong ties to the Jewish state.
In weighing Arab political and territorial rights equally in the balance with the security needs of Israel, the US's closest ally in the region, Mr. Bush and Mr. Baker have won the confidence that has drawn the Arab parties into the peace process. But what Arabs see as evenhandedness on the part of the Bush administration, some Clinton advisers have criticized as undue pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions.
Arabs are particularly worried by Clinton's positions on the status of Jerusalem and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Clinton disputes Bush's contention that settlement-building, which has been substantially curtailed by the Labor government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, poses one of the biggest obstacles to Middle East peacemaking.
Like the last several American presidents, Bush has refused to recognize the incorporation of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem into Israel, insisting that its status must be determined through negotiation. Clinton says that an "undivided" Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and favors the de facto recognition that would result from relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv as soon as possible, "without interfering with the peace process."
"The sense of fairness Bush and Baker brought to the process can't be tampered with," warns Mr. Jahshan. "It was critical to getting both sides to the bargaining table."
If prospects for a quick breakthrough look promising, Baker may throw himself back into Middle East peacemaking for the remainder of Bush's term in hopes of ending it with a diplomatic triumph, analysts say.
Absent any breakthrough by Jan. 20, Clinton may choose a special envoy to help nudge the talks forward. Replacing Baker, who derived immense prestige from his close personal relationship with Bush, will be difficult. The rumored appointment of Jimmy Carter seems unlikely since the former president is an advocate of Palestinian statehood, a position that goes far beyond Clinton's own definition of Palestinian self-determination.
Any candidate would have to be someone the Israelis trust and someone Arabs view as influential inside Israel, notes a US observer of the talks who requested anonymity.
"What you're looking for is someone who has the trust of the Israelis at a time when the Israelis are going to have to make the major concessions," says this observer.
Bilateral peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors were launched one year ago in the aftermath of the Gulf war.
Round 7 of the talks recessed before the US presidential elections on an optimistic note as Israel and Jordan talked of an agreement on an agenda calling for an eventual peace treaty. Among Arab states only Egypt has signed a formal peace treaty with Israel, negotiated by Mr. Carter at Camp David in 1978.
Hopes have also been brightened by rhetorical concessions by Israel and Syria that hint at a possible eventual swap of the Golan Heights by Israel for a formal peace treaty with Syria.
While Bush has sought to work with Syria, which plays a crucial role in the peace process, Clinton has said he would keep Syria at arms length because of its sponsorship of terrorism.
Analysts speculate that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad might offer a concession before Bush's term ends as a means of getting off the State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism. Any concession now could also put Syria into the good graces of the Clinton administration.
"Progress in the talks is desirable, but there is a risk that some of the key Middle East players will be tempted to delay until the new administration takes office," says Georgetown University government professor Robert Leiber, offering a dissenting view.
"If so, it will mean they have calculated that they want any concessions on their part to be conspicuously visible to the new administration and to its top policymakers."