PRESIDENT Clinton's trip to Damascus failed to put Syrian President Hafez al-Assad firmly on the track toward peace with Israel.
Mr. Assad continues to demand a total unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and the price tag for the United States to compensate Israel and Syria for such a withdrawal could eclipse any peace deals negotiated before - including Israel's accords with Egypt, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and now Jordan.
As the chief broker - and banker - of the Middle East peace process, the US wrote off Jordan's $700 million debt to ensure the early signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in the Arava Desert this week.
But the financial cost of peace in the Middle East could be far higher than the costs of waging war. And much of that burden could fall to the US, Israel's major financial backer.
``The US is playing a very different role now to the role it was playing in the Middle East in the 1970s,'' says Dore Gold, a Tel Aviv University strategic analyst. ``Today the US has the role of providing the financial incentives rather than being an intermediary.''
Israel is seeking billions of dollars to compensate Jewish settlers who would have to be moved from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
And Assad, who continues to balk at making major compromises with Israel, wants direct compensation for any reduction of the giant Syrian armed forces.
``The challenge for the US, if you do a deal with Syria, is that the start-up costs for military aspects alone would be in the region of $5 billion,'' Mr. Gold says.
Mr. Clinton did make moderate progress with Assad during his visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus yesterday.
The Syrian president, with his influence over Lebanon, is a key player in any deal for a lasting Arab peace with Israel.
[Lebanon said yesterday that any breakthrough in peace talks between Syria and Israel would revive its only deadlock in negotiations with the Jewish state, but Foreign Minister Faris Bouez added that the time has not come to seriously discuss the Lebanese issue, Reuters reports from Beirut.
Both Beirut and Damascus, which are closely coordinating their policies on peace with Israel, have criticized Jordan and the PLO for signing peace pacts with Israel.]
At a Damascus news conference following yesterday's meeting, Clinton said that Assad had ``gone beyond'' previous commitments to peace with Israel, but he did not elaborate.
``Our job will not be done, and we will not rest until peace agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon are reached,'' Clinton said. ``I wish we were signing a peace treaty on this trip. We won't do it.''
While the US administration has set an Israel-Syria peace treaty as a foreign-policy priority, Clinton could have a hard time convincing Congress that such massive foreign aid is justified in the post-cold-war era compared with domestic economic priorities.
``The question is: Can the US sustain a higher level of aid to Israel for the risks Israel is taking in a fundamentally changed international and domestic climate?,'' asks Gold, the author of a recent paper arguing that the US must commit forces to an international peacekeeping effort on the Israeli-Syrian border to act as a buffer in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
``In the cold-war era the US approved liberal spending in foreign aid because of the need for containing the sphere of Soviet influence.
``In the post-cold-war era, there are competing domestic programs and a desire for bringing down levels of domestic spending,'' he says.
PEACE with Jordan this week was achieved with a combination of US financial concessions and a controversial arrangement whereby Jordan leases back land it lost to Israel in return for recognition of its ownership rights.
Israeli officials made clear that they regarded the Jordan formula as a model for a settlement with Syria over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
But Assad has angrily rejected any notion that Syria should lease back land it claims as sovereign territory in return for peace.
In the emerging deal with Syria, Syrian and Israeli negotiators envisage a US role in providing intelligence and security in the Golan following an Israeli withdrawal - in line with the role the US played in underwriting the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai Peninsula in the late 1970s.
Gold said the dilemma that the US and Israel had to face in Syria was: How do you give up a strategic piece of land and keep it safe?
Israel's price for withdrawing from the Golan Heights could be higher than the US Congress will allow him to pay.
Israel is demanding a massive reduction in the size of the Syrian armed forces and the dismantling of Assad's huge arsenal of Scud-C ground-to-ground missiles.
Israel wants a unilateral demilitarization of the territory between Damascus and the Golan and insists on maintaining a noncombative intelligence station on Mount Herman well beyond an Israeli withdrawal.
Clinton could also face resistance from civil rights groups in justifying the payment of huge sums to a leader with a appalling human rights records.
When Assad was faced with resistance from Islamic extremists in the town of Hama in 1982, he ordered the Army to put down the rebellion, which led to obliteration of the entire town. An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 people were killed in the massacre.
The challenge for Clinton will be to convince the American public that it is better to broker peace now with secular Arab leaders, regardless of their past, than to create a power vacuum that would play into the hands of Islamic militants who could pose a greater threat to world peace.