Why Mideast Talks Are Key for Clinton

Striking a deal would keep peace process moving - and add heft to presidential legacy

In Wye Mills, Md., President Clinton has logged close to 60 hours of on-site negotiating in six days. He's canceled fund-raising trips to personally push talks that were supposed to wrap up last weekend. He's worked long nights, with Marine One delivering him home as late as 3 a.m.

While it's no Camp David peace process, Mr. Clinton's helicopter diplomacy is his greatest single investment of time and energy in a foreign-policy issue since taking office.

But why this extraordinary commitment to a deal the White House itself downplays as only an interim step in the long quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Certainly, the key reason is concern that failure now would deal such a severe blow to the Mideast peace process that it might not soon recover. But analysts cite other factors as well - perhaps among them a presidential desire to leave a foreign-policy legacy that compares favorably with those of his predecessors.

Success in the talks at Wye Mills, which were continuing at press time, would definitely help Clinton establish a foreign-policy legacy as peacemaker and conciliator, says Thomas Henriksen, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.

The president could string together the 1995 Dayton peace accord on Bosnia, his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland, his overture to China, and now the Mideast "as part of this peacemaker role that he sees himself in," says Dr. Henriksen.

Indeed, history remembers Nixon for opening China, Carter for the Israeli-Egyptian accord at Camp David, Reagan for turning up the heat on the cold war, and Bush for the Gulf War. "Clinton doesn't have any real strong points, so this [peacemaker role] might have to be it," he says.

But White House officials say that legacy has nothing to do with the president's motivation.

"The alternative [to success] is a vital region of the world drifting back toward conflict," says one official who's followed the Wye talks. With more instability in the Mideast, the United States could lose its access to energy sources, he says. "The concept of legacy is not why he's doing this ... it's a matter of national interest, and the president understands this."

Neither White House insiders nor outsiders, though, are surprised by the lengths to which the president has gone.

Clinton is a talker, a policy wonk, and a night owl. He likes nothing better than to debate issues into the wee hours of the morning, they say. Not only has he spent hours on end with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat, but he also has become involved in the nitty-gritty details of "technical committees" examining specific parts of the pact.

Moreover, the president must be involved because that's the only way to move Mideast issues forward, says Jody Powell, press secretary under Carter. "You very seldom get real progress on this set of issues without very active involvement of the United States on a very senior level - sometimes the president and sometimes the secretary of State," he says.

WHITE House officials explain the president's role as one of helping each side to understand the other. In negotiations fraught with mistrust, Clinton "enjoys a reservoir of trust," says spokesman Joseph Lockhart.

That's not quite true, say others. Whereas Clinton has a genial relationship with Mr. Arafat, his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu is more strained, influenced by the US president's clear preference for Shimon Peres in Israeli elections almost two years ago.

Mideast analysts say the real incentive for both sides to talk with the president is the power and prestige of his office - including his ability to produce US funds to help with Israeli troop withdrawals, for instance, or in designating the CIA to help Arafat with terrorism surveillance.

William Quandt, who helped negotiate Israeli-Egyptian peace at Camp David, wishes Clinton had used his power and prestige when he had more of them - back when he was not "so lame-ducky" and not so scandal-ridden. He faults the president for entering this peace process late, for being reactionary instead of visionary. Still, "I'm glad he's doing it now," adds Mr. Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia.

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