WASHINGTON — Only three months ago, President Clinton was presiding over summit talks that held the promise of a Mideast peace agreement. But Monday, Clinton and his aides were at work on a far graver effort--trying to prevent a full-scale Arab-Israeli war.
Although Clinton administration officials continued to talk wistfully about restoring the peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that came tantalizingly close to success at Camp David in July, there was a growing realization that Clinton's bag of diplomatic tricks is about empty.
"The administration has to accept that we are no longer dealing with the peace process," said Geoffrey Kemp, a former White House Middle East expert. "We are dealing with crisis management and the prevention of a wider Middle East conflict that could have a devastating impact on the security structure that we have established over the last 25 years."
The sudden change in fortunes shows that in the Middle East, almost-agreements don't count for much. Sometimes a near miss even holds the seeds of its own destruction by energizing opponents.
Moreover, even a fully committed U.S. president has limited powers of suasion. The only remaining superpower has enormous influence, but it cannot force the two sides to agree.
Whether Clinton and other backers of the peace process can reverse the damage is a major question.
On Monday, Clinton spent most of the Columbus Day holiday talking by telephone to leaders across the volatile region. Officials said he also was weighing the option of calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to a new summit, probably in Egypt or Europe, but late Monday there appeared to be no agreement on holding such a meeting soon.
"We will continue to do what we have always done, which is to work with both sides," said P.J. Crowley, the White House spokesman on foreign policy. "There needs to be more done to get the violence to stop. We want to get them back to the peace process so we can help them narrow the gaps."
But there is growing evidence that conditions are no longer favorable for the White House's preferred method of diplomacy: focusing on Barak, Arafat and other regional leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Syrian President Bashar Assad. The growing rage in both the Israeli and Palestinian public threatens to overwhelm anything the leaders might do.
"Typically, the U.S. lever has been directly with governments," said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland expert on Middle East peace. "But the leaders are losing some control. The public and social and political institutions are increasingly dictating events. The mosques have become more important in influencing public opinion."
Nevertheless, Telhami said Washington must continue trying to calm the violence and restart negotiations. The stakes are too high to do anything else. He said a summit with Clinton in attendance would be a wise step, although success is by no means assured.
Telhami added that the situation is extremely vulnerable to the actions of militants on both sides. "Every extremist can inflame it, and they will try," he said.
The Middle East wars in 1967 and 1973 both ended after the United States and the Soviet Union issued a joint call for a cease-fire. Although historians do not agree on whether the Washington-Moscow appeal was decisive, there is little doubt that it was important. But that strategy is no longer available.
Although Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov is on a trip to Syria, Lebanon and Israel, Russia is now only a bit player in Middle East diplomacy. And the United States can only persuade, not command.
"We're not in the driver's seat with either party, that is what this shows," said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "We are in a position of attempting to persuade. We can't make them do things, and we can't stop them from doing things."
But other experts say Clinton might have more clout than he seems to be willing to use.
"We are Arafat's main ally, whether we like it or not," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There would be no Palestinian Authority without us. We have a lot of leverage that we are not using."
However, there is no doubt that the rapport between Arafat and Clinton eroded after the Camp David conference, when the president pointedly said Barak was prepared to compromise on issues on which Arafat refused to budge. The criticism clearly stung Arafat, who once reveled in his frequent invitations to the White House.