WASHINGTON - It has been the dream of every U.S. president at least since Richard M. Nixon, but a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord could offer Bill Clinton a personal reward of incalculable value: a historical legacy to rival his impeachment.
This week, President Clinton scrapped fund-raisers from California to Colorado, scrubbed an appearance before the NAACP in Baltimore and threw the weight and prestige of his office behind a high-stakes Middle East summit that could produce a crowning achievement of his administration.
Few would say a lasting peace in the Middle East would push the taint of impeachment from the opening lines of any retrospective on the Clinton presidency, but it could share top billing - especially if it made him the first U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize since Woodrow Wilson, as some are suggesting.
"A real success would be a shining star in the Clinton presidency," said Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President George Bush and an adviser to George W. Bush. "It might even get him a Nobel Prize."
White House aides sought yesterday to downplay expectations, hotly disputing any speculation that Clinton's personal concerns were driving his push for a peace accord.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat limped toward Camp David last night, both weakened by political discord at home. Barak narrowly escaped a vote of no-confidence in the Israeli parliament yesterday, and Arafat is facing a restive Palestinian population that is growing increasingly skeptical that its long-time leader can secure statehood.
Now Barak, Arafat and Clinton must bridge the gap on such intractable issues as the future of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and whether Palestinian refugees are to be allowed back.
"This is so complicated, with a lot of emotion, a lot of passions, and some really, really tough issues," said a high-ranking White House official. "Anyone who is suggesting the president embarked on this for his legacy really doesn't understand just how hard and complex the situation is."
But the historical significance of the summit is inescapable.
"They hate the `L' word, legacy, and I can understand why," said Anthony Lake, a former Clinton national security adviser. "But [Clinton] and his senior advisers wouldn't be human if they weren't aware of it."
Scowcroft, an ardent critic of the president's foreign policy, said Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright telegraphed those ambitions when she said the deadline for peace was the end of Clinton's term, Jan. 20, not the Sept. 13 deadline set by Arafat and Barak.
Even some of Clinton's supporters say history has to be lurking in his mind.
"Clearly I think he's nailed down an economic legacy that few other presidents have been able to achieve," said Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff. "If he can nail down a major foreign policy achievement, impeachment could be a footnote rather than a headline."
A lasting accord between the Palestinians and Israelis certainly would be "a huge accomplishment," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Couple that with Clinton's efforts to broker peace in Northern Ireland, the Korean peninsula, the Balkans, Haiti and elsewhere and Clinton could very well be a contender for the Nobel prize, Telhami said. He would be only the third president to win such an honor, after Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and the first since 1920.
Even a Nobel prize would have trouble nudging aside Clinton's impeachment, said Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic congressman.
"If he pulls this off successfully, it'll be a major part of his legacy without any doubt," Hamilton said. "But I think President Clinton will always be identified in the first line as the only elected president who was impeached. That is such a unique distinction."
After all, the Camp David accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt did not erase a historical judgment that Jimmy Carter was a largely weak and ineffectual president, most historians agree.
Those accords came during the Cold War, when the Middle East was a tinderbox that threatened to ignite a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, said Richard N. Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Now, he said, the stakes are not so high.
"In and of itself, [a peace accord] cannot make for a legacy simply because the Middle East, as important as it is, is not a central fault line of international diplomacy," Haass said.
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still captures the public's imagination, in part because of the prominence of the Jewish community in the United States, in part because it is a quandary that has captivated presidents for decades. Not to mention the proximity of Middle East oilfields.