If ever the race toward a Middle East peace were in the final lap, it is now.
The sprint to the finish began this week. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began the task of meeting a February deadline and coming up with broad solutions to settle their most difficult differences: Jerusalem, West Bank border, Jewish settlements, Israeli security, the return of Palestinian refugees, and water.
But is there a referee to keep these two runners heading straight and true to the tape, someone who can prevent out-of-lane cheating or stop one runner from just dropping out?
For the Clinton administration, the risk of failure in these "final status" talks is so high that it has warned the American people that they now have a "vital strategic interest" at stake. Such a phrase is usually reserved for the potential use of US force, such as in the Gulf War.
But in this case, the equivalent tactic will be plain hardball arm-twisting. Is President Clinton up to the task?
He hopes his main foreign policy legacy will be a Mideast peace. To achieve it, he still needs to prep the American people for likely sacrifices - even deployment of GIs as peacekeepers - and be prepared to take heat from special interests.
The record of past talks is that the US usually must intervene and make promises, threats, or sacrifices. US taxpayers have paid billions to keep the Israel-Egypt peace. Over 200 marines were lost in Lebanon in 1983. The CIA was put to work to find anti-Israel Islamic terrorists. Millions of more dollars are required to cement the recent and relatively minor progress in Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Israel doesn't want the US to be an arbiter. The Palestinians usually do; they're the weaker party in these talks, having the most to lose - a viable state of their own - if Israel plays hard-to-get. But even the Palestinians might need a hard US nudge to compromise and bear up under Arab criticism.
Many reasonable ideas have already been floated to solve these final, thorniest issues: A Palestinian state might have its capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Millions of Palestinian refugees can be compensated to settle in their host countries. Jewish settlements can be shrunk and consolidated near the West Bank border. And so on.
What's most difficult is finding the courage to compromise and finish this peace race. All sides will need to face down their domestic critics.
And for that, the US must provide more than mood music. It can be the referee with a loud whistle.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society