High expectations for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's debut Middle East trip have been all but doused by the State Department - "she is not a magician, she's a realist," it contends. And across the region, a sense of hopelessness about the collapse of the peace process is well-entrenched.
But as the secretary begins her visit, she is still an unknown quantity with the potential to shake up recalcitrant Mideast leaders and bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. Despite recent violence, the wish for peace among Israeli and Palestinian people is still widespread.
To take her mission to these people - with hope that they will in turn appeal for compromise to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat - Ms. Albright is to meet both Jewish and Palestinian high school students.
But other considerations may preclude a free and balanced hand by the top US diplomat, experts say. Albright laid out a dual strategy last month of pressuring Mr. Arafat to control terrorism, and Mr. Netanyahu to limit Israeli building on occupied Arab land.
But since then, a terrorist attack on a busy Jerusalem pedestrian mall Sept. 4 has shifted the priority to pushing Arafat.
Also important is how pressure on Israel will play at home with the American Jewish community, whose support Vice President Al Gore is likely to cultivate if he runs for president in 2000.
Still, she will bring the weight of top-level US diplomacy to the Middle East for the first time in 1-1/2 years, and few think she will happily go home empty-handed.
"America's role is to play the 'pressure game,' so that each side can deal more effectively with ... extremists," says Gabriel Sheffer, an expert on US-Israel relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Netanyahu can say to the far right, 'You don't want to go to war with the US, do you?' and Arafat can say, 'We're not giving in to Israel, but to America.' " Albright's "best weapon," he says, is telling each leader: "I'm going to blame you for any failure."
The State Department, however, has sought to quell high hopes, and some say the format of the trip - without any of Warren Christopher's trademark "shuttling" back and forth - means this can be little more than a getting-to-know-you exercise.
"It looks as if a certain reassessment has been made," says Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. "Under these circumstances, I don't see how she is going to bang heads together."
Compounding the problem is Palestinian anxiety about perceived US bias toward Israel. Though President Clinton has shown that he shares little chemistry with Netanyahu, his administration is one of the most pro-Israel in recent memory. That dates from his 1992 election campaign, analysts note, when Jewish-American distaste for President Bush's tough stance on Israel meant more than 50 percent of Mr. Clinton's campaign money came from Jewish-American sources.
Since then, Clinton's high profile visit during the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 confirmed close ties of friendship.
Palestinians say that variations of this relationship have always been a given in the Mideast, but hard-liners argue that the mostly Jewish US team - Albright's own Jewish roots have been recently revealed - make easy targets for Palestinian conspiracy theories.
Sources who know the team well say their professionalism is largely unimpeachable, and note that Mideast envoy Dennis Ross and others have at times been critical of Netanyahu policies. Many believe Netanyahu wants to "torpedo" the peace process. A Cabinet decision Sept. 5 to freeze troop withdrawals from occupied Arab land effectively marks Israel's unilateral abrogation of the 1993 Oslo accords.
But few know if his vision of a Palestinian "entity" under Israeli control can ever be accepted by the Palestinians, if Albright will be able to help bridge such wide gaps - or if she will be allowed to.
"The American Jewish community is in a difficult position," says a well-regarded American source who asked not to be named. "It's not comfortable with what Netanyahu is doing, but it is more uncomfortable pressuring him....
"My sense is that Gore is breathing down the neck of the State Department, asking 'What sort of pressures are you thinking of? I need the Jewish-American vote.' " he says. "To what extent this has changed the music, I don't know. But if there is no more than a namby-pamby press conference from this trip, my sense is that [the State Department] will have backed down."