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Clinton's gambit as peacebroker

As Syrian-Israeli talks proceed, the Mideast offers this US president

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Nixon opened China. Carter forged the historic Israel-Egypt peace deal. Reagan drove the Communist Soviet Union toward dtente with the US.

So far, these former presidents have upstaged Bill Clinton, who has yet to make such a permanent contribution to defusing world tensions. But as Mr. Clinton enters his last year in office, analysts see the greatest prospect for a Clinton-brokered peace in the current Arab-Israeli peace talks.

For all the criticisms of the administration's scattershot approach to international affairs, the Mideast is one area where attention has been relatively focused - and the president personally engaged, analysts say.

Indeed, Clinton cleared his calendar yesterday to preside over the second round of Israeli-Syrian talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Official Syrian media are calling the discussions "decisive," as both sides seek a land-for-security deal after fighting three full-fledged wars since Israel's founding in 1948.

"I have actually very high expectations for what might come out of the Israel-Syria talks simply because it plays to where the president is strongest, and that is personal intervention, hand-holding, being the go-between, and having the staying power to hang with it," says Tara Sonenshine, a former senior aide to national security adviser Samuel Berger.

There is, of course, no shortage of hot spots that could use the hand of a skillful negotiator. Besides the Mideast, there's the Balkans quagmire, the India-Pakistan tinderbox, the Korean Peninsula - all representing opportunities for a president who is now a senior statesman.

Unlike President Richard Nixon, who preferred paper diplomacy to face-to-face talks, or Ronald Reagan, who relied heavily on Secretary of State George Shultz, Clinton runs intense, almost therapy-like sessions with world leaders when he senses a peace deal.

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