(CNSNews.com) - Just weeks after President Clinton's candid declaration that failure to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians was the greatest disappointment of his presidency, the president has again become involved in the Middle East, pushing a peace package he says neither side can afford to refuse.
While U.S. observers give Clinton high marks for his extensive knowledge of the issues, many question the likelihood of success of any Middle East peace deal that could be secured by a U.S. president who has only three weeks left in office, and six weeks before one of the parties - Israel - holds a general election.
"Deals like this don't get made on the razor's edge, they get made over a period of time, or not at all," said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington.
"What is required for a Mid-East peace process is extensive patience, and by extensive patience I don't mean a four-year administration or an eight-year administration - I mean whatever it takes," he said.
Fresh from a trip to Ireland, where he enjoys broad popular support for his brokerage of a peace deal among warring factions in British-ruled Northern Ireland, Clinton applied himself with renewed vigor to Middle East politics.
"A lot of what he's doing can be explained by a desire to push the envelope to see if he can get a deal," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "Certainly there are legacy issues, not only for him but for people who work for him, who have spent incredible hours trying to make this deal come together."
An effort to craft a peace deal "is something the United States has been working on with varying degrees of intensity for three decades, and it has been tantalizingly close. For five years we've known the basic outlines of what a final deal will look like and it's just a question of getting the ball over the goal line," Alterman said.
But even if this last gambit proves successful, there's going to be a difficult period of implementation and negotiation over the shape of what the final deal will really look like.
The Camp David accords signed in 1978 between Israel and Egypt took months to work out, Alterman pointed out.
"There remain sharp disagreements within the U.S. government as well as in the world over how best to do this and how one balances the long American relationship with Israel and the much newer American relationship with the Palestinians, and how to work with our European allies. There are a lot of things the Clinton administration is trying to work on the fly," he said.
Neumann said that if a deal was made, neither of the parties could deliver at this stage. "In Arafat's case it's neither can nor will deliver - and Israel's gone about as far as it can go - if not further than it can go. I don't see any potentiality for more concessions on the part of Israel, and Arafat is totally under-conceded," he said.
Since the Wye Memorandum and the Camp David summit in summer, the focus of the issues have changed, observers agreed. "The conflict now is about symbolism and language. It's not about land so much but psychological factors and apologies and the rights of communities, which are harder to resolve," Alterman said.
President-elect George w. Bush won't pick up the issue of Middle East peace with the same vigor as the Clinton administration when he assumes office, "if only because American presidents have traditionally become personally involved with Mid-East diplomacy in the latter parts of their terms.
"Bush has said education is his first priority. I can't imagine that [Secretary of State-designate] Colin Powell will make 20 trips to Damascus. I don't see the patience on the Cabinet level for this process that the Clinton people have devoted, unless there's a real indication that this is going to move," Alterman said.
Rasheed Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, said he didn't believe the passing of the Clinton administration would have an impact on the prospects for long-term peace in the Middle East.
"The Clinton administration hasn't initiated anything of what has transpired for good, bad or indifferent," he said. "The original peace process was initiated at Oslo by Israelis and Palestinians frustrated with the Clinton administration's ineptitude. The Camp David summit was initiated entirely by [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak, who dragged the Americans and the Palestinians to the table.
"Also, I think the president has been exceedingly poorly advised by a group whose expertise on the Arab side has been wanting, and who have been obsessively concerned with what would be acceptable to Israel, and callous and indifferent toward Palestinian concerns," he said.
Khalidi said the Bush administration has yet to reveal what its policy will be on the Middle East. Policy will not be made at high levels, he said, but by lower level political appointees of state and intelligence and other branches of government who will determine the parameters of the administration's actions.