Seven years ago, on a day full of sunshine and promise, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stood in front of a proud President Clinton on the White House lawn and shook Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hand.
Seven years ago? Today, that handshake seems to belong to another lifetime.
As Israelis and Arabs struggle in a new cycle of violence and a US naval destroyer in the region is hit by what the US is calling a terrorist attack, one of Mr. Clinton's most cherished achievements - progress toward Middle East peace - is in question as never before.
Suddenly the clock seems turned back to the 1980s, when Palestinians and Israeli troops confronted each other on a daily basis and terrorist bombs endangered American personnel around the world.
The region has not really regressed to that point, say experts. Too much progress has been made on too many Israeli-Arab issues.
But if the US were to abandon its attempts at mediation and withdraw from Middle East diplomacy - or more overtly take one side - it is possible that the bad old days could return. The American role may be a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for peace.
"The US has to be able to position itself to see the conflict through to the end," says Steven Riskin, a Middle East regional stop shelling civilians, to stop shelling our towns, and to move out of the occupied territories."
And top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called the Israeli strikes "a declaration of war."
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on both Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting each other and restart peace talks.
The shift in the nature of the conflict has been evident since mid-week. On Wednesday evening in the West Bank city of Nablus, tank-mounted Israeli soldiers fought a running battle with an armed Palestinian group, demonstrating that some Palestinians no longer want to face their adversaries with stones alone.
Yesterday's fighting featured scenes of Israel using tanks, attack helicopters, and gunships, although Israeli officials stressed that their target was not the Palestinian people. A strike against a Palestinian television building, for instance, was intended to silence a media outlet that Israel says foments hatred and violence.
The day turned ugly when a crowd of angry Palestinians seized two Israeli Army reservists who, Israeli officials said, had mistakenly driven into the West Bank city of Ramallah. Despite the somewhat lackluster attempts of Palestinian police to protect them, the mob killed the Israelis. "They were butchered," says an angry Lt. Col. Erez Winner, the commander of the Israeli battalion responsible for Ramallah.
Israel retaliated immediately, attacking police stations, the television building, and one of Mr. Arafat's headquarters.
Palestinians were dismayed at how Israel characterized the event that began yesterday's chain reaction - Israeli soldiers mistakenly stumbling into the most populated part of the West Bank. Ramallah has seen repeated clashes since late September.
"We have 100 dead in the past 10 days," says Kadoura Fares, a leader of Arafat's Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank. "To send Israelis to the middle of [Ramallah] is very dangerous."
Palestinian legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh condemns what he sees as deliberate Israeli provocation. "The Israelis are trying to escalate the conflict by sending in their [covert] forces," he says, a reference to reports that the soldiers were actually part of an undercover unit.
Like Americans, Israelis identify strongly with their soldiers and police, and the killing seems certain to inflame public opinion. With rare exceptions, all young Israelis serve in the armed forces.
Analysts say that yesterday's developments will force Prime Minister Ehud Barak to create a unity government that would bring together hard-line politicians opposed to the peace process, and Mr. Barak's more dovish supporters.
"I don't see how he can avoid the formation of an emergency government that would include the [right-wing] Likud" party, says Ze'ev Maoz, head of the graduate school of government and policy at Tel Aviv University.
The events of recent days have deepened the cynicism of conservative Israelis. Arafat "never was opposed to killing a few Jews - that's what he's tried to do the last few weeks," says Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.
At the same time, the sense of crisis and the Israeli retaliation is hardening Palestinian resolve as well, meaning that the atmosphere is becoming even more polarized on both sides.
Mr. Saleh, the legislator, says Palestinians have been increasingly angry with Arafat for continuing to engage with the Israelis as Palestinian casualties mount.
"Palestinians don't want Arafat to negotiate or coordinate policies while their children are being killed," he says.
But where it was once feared that Arafat was unable to control his people and his security forces, it now seems that many of them are joining the fight against Israel in a concerted way.
Israeli government spokesman Shai Nachman charges that Palestinian police are no longer working alongside Israeli forces to preserve security, but working against them. "There is no doubt that activity like that can only take place with a directive from Yasser Arafat," he says.
The Fatah's Mr. Fares says that "the Israelis have killed not only civilians, but also 35 Palestinian police and soldiers. The soldiers don't have any major reason to prevent the people from attacking Israelis. It's a very difficult situation."
Over the weekend, Israeli soldiers withdrew from Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus, the site of gun battles last week, leaving the religious site in the protection of Palestinian security forces.
But they did not stop a Palestinian mob from burning and destroying the buildings around the tomb, angering Israelis who said they could no longer trust their Palestinian partners.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society