When President Clinton alights from his helicopter in the dust-bound Gaza Strip next week, he will be writing a new chapter in the rocky history of relations between the United States and the Palestinians.
Never before has an American president visited territory controlled by Palestinians, once viewed as terrorists by the US and still seen as threats to Israel's security by the powerful Jewish-American lobby and its supporters in the GOP-led Congress.
Yet for all of its historic symbolism, there remain deep doubts over whether Mr. Clinton's stopover in Gaza Monday will mark a step forward in the search for Middle East peace amid the worst unrest to convulse the Israeli Occupied Territories in months.
"Clinton may have an opportunity to inject something substantive and new into his visit that could turn things around," says Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "Otherwise ... tensions and hostility will increase and the symbolic presence of an American president [on Palestinian territory] will be drowned out."
Officials of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority have infuriated the Israelis and embarrassed the US by seeking to exploit the significance of Clinton's visit. They hail it as a "leap forward" by the US toward eventual recognition of an independent Palestinian state.
Other Palestinians dispute that. They see the visit as a bid by Clinton to ensure that an increasingly unpopular Mr. Arafat remains complicit in a treacherous deal that will deny them the return of all the territories seized by Israel in the 1968 Middle East war.
"US policy ... has not changed in the way that would make it seem to be responding to the aspirations of the Palestinians," asserts Nasser Aruri, a Palestinian National Council (PNC) member who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
US officials agree Clinton's visit to Gaza will be "an evolutionary high point" in US-Palestinian dealings. But anxious not to jeopardize the shape of a final peace deal, they deny it is any kind of gesture in support of Palestinian independence.
Clinton, they insist, is fulfilling the interim accord for a further Israeli pullout from the West Bank, brokered in October at the Wye River Conference Center in Maryland. The pact, aimed at ending almost two years of dangerous paralysis in the peace process, calls for him to witness in Gaza a formal revocation of the Palestinians' vow to destroy Israel.
The visit "will give the Palestinian people an opportunity to reflect on how ... peace offers far greater hope than confrontation," says White House spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Yet many experts are skeptical. While the Gaza visit may persuade Arafat to press on with the peace process, they say it does not represent a shift in what many Palestinians consider the Clinton administration's overwhelming bias toward Israel. They worry that the few hours he will spend there will add fresh fuel to the clashes that erupted this week over Israel's pledge in the Wye pact to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
The unrest has led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a revolt by right-wingers in his coalition, to suspend the Israeli troop withdrawal required by the Wye agreement. It also ignited fresh recriminations between him and Arafat ahead of Clinton's three-day trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories, which begins late Saturday.
"There has been a disconnect between the Arafat regime and a substantial and growing part of Palestinian public opinion, which [is] increasingly disenchanted with the way the peace process has been conducted," says Professor Hudson.
The doubts about Clinton's visit to Gaza aside, even some critics concede that it represents an evolution in ties between the United States and the Palestinians.
"It is more symbol than substance, yet at the same time, symbols are very important," says Michael Dunn, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Journal.
Official US-Palestinian ties were nonexistent until the mid-1980s, with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) viewed as one of the world's leading terrorist groups. But its ouster by Israel from Lebanon, and Arafat's recognition in 1988 of Israel's right to exist, led to formal talks with the US on ways to end the most intractable dispute in the Middle East.
Former President Bush's efforts to advance the process were dealt a major setback by Arafat's backing of Iraq when it seized Kuwait in 1990. But capitalizing on his 1991 Gulf War victory, Arafat's international isolation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Palestinians' key patron, Mr. Bush pushed to revive the peace process.
He won new Palestinian confidence by blocking $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in response to its intransigence and expansion of Jewish settlements. The relationship grew during the November 1991 Madrid peace conference, where the Palestinians were represented by non-PLO leaders from the Occupied Territories.
The PLO's inclusion in the talks broadened the contacts further until a 1990 raid by Palestinian guerrillas on Israel prompted Bush to sever them.
Arafat's renunciation of terrorism in 1993 led Clinton to restore US-Palestinian ties, paving the way for the signing on the White House lawn of the September 1993 Oslo interim peace accord for Palestinian self-rule.