WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's first foreign trip is shaping up as a race to restore the Middle East peace process to a snail's pace.
And he may be lucky to get that much.
With feverish effort behind the scenes, the United States, Israel and America's Arab allies succeeded Friday in preventing the mission from being overwhelmed by the fate of the nearly 400 remaining Palestinians expelled to a frigid hilltop in southern Lebanon.
The United Nations Security Council gave a qualified endorsement to a U.S.-Israeli deal for the return of the deportees, shifting the problem to the sidelines.
But the Clinton administration still faces a huge challenge in a tinderbox region that in the best of times requires a disproportionate amount of U.S. officials' time and effort.
Analysts and diplomats say Mr. Christopher needs to establish the new administration's credibility and commitment with the region's shrewd and cautious leaders.
Beyond that, he must find ways of advancing the talks from the near-deadlock that set in last year once they moved beyond procedure and approached the core issues of territory, security and peace.
"Christopher inherits a process. Now he will need to energize it," said Richard Haass, a Middle East adviser to former President George Bush.
Attempting to fulfill a Clinton campaign commitment to the peace process, Mr. Christopher leaves Wednesday for a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe that includes stops in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Geneva, Switzerland, and Brussels, Belgium.
His primary aim is to get Israelis and Arabs to commit to an early resumption of direct negotiations and to a separate series of broader talks on regional issues.
The talks, all but stalled after former Secretary of State James A. Baker III went to the White House in August, went into what a senior U.S. official called a "deep freeze" two months ago when Israel deported hundreds of Palestinians it labeled as radical Islamic fundamentalists intent on destroying the Jewish state.
But the deportees have become a much-publicized symbol of what Arabs generally see as unpunished Israeli defiance of international law.
A U.S.-Israeli deal under which a fourth of the deportees could return immediately and the rest within a year succeeded in blocking a move toward U.N. Security Council sanctions against Israel, but it was quickly rejected by the deportees themselves.
Late Friday, however, the Security Council agreed that steps taken by Israel so far represent a step in the right direction.
It also voiced the hope that remaining deportees will be allowed to return expeditiously and that the peace process will reconvene.
This move was important to Palestinian negotiators for two reasons: It put a U.N. imprimatur on the U.S.-Israeli deal, diluting the widespread Arab perception that it was undertaken behind Palestinians' backs solely to protect Israel from U.N. sanctions.
It also signaled an implicit Israeli recognition of the Security Council's authority.
Earlier Friday, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi praised what she called "an indication that Israel is working more constructively with the Security Council."
Arabs had voiced fears that if Israel blithely defied U.N. warnings about the deportees, it could never be pressured into implementing U.N. land-for-peace resolutions 242 and 338, the cornerstones of the Middle East peace process for the last 20 years.
"This step allows the discussions next week on the trip to really focus on the peace process," a senior U.S. official said.
In its most positive light, these two weeks of pre-trip diplomacy show what Robert Satloff, acting director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls a new U.S.-Israeli political partnership aimed at advancing the peace process. The experience forged solid, early ties between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Clinton administration.
The Arabs, Mr. Satloff said, have demanded that the United States be the "driving force."
"They now have that. It can be used to great advantage by all sides in the process."
While all the parties want the talks to resume, however, they have yet to commit themselves even to a date, let alone changes in their negotiation posture that would make genuine progress likely.
While Mr. Christopher comes with a record of his dogged negotiations during the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, Arab leaders remain suspicious about President Clinton, says Mohammed Wahby, an Egyptian journalist and former diplomat.
In addition, the president is woefully inexperienced in contrast with the decades in high office shared by almost all the leaders Mr. Christopher will meet.
An Arab diplomat sees signs of ineptness and wishy-washiness in the way the administration has handled both foreign and domestic issues so far.
In the campaign, Mr. Clinton showed a more pro-Israel tilt than Mr. Bush.
While most of the U.S. officials working on the peace process now did so under the Republicans, Arab eyebrows have been raised over two new Clinton administration policy-makers, Martin Indyk at the National Security Council and Samuel Lewis at the State Department, because of their past close Israeli ties.
But Ms. Ashrawi said, "I think it's counterproductive to start talking about individuals. We just hope that they do manage to perform their job with integrity and even-handedness."
Arab leaders will also be watching how Mr. Clinton handles Iraq and Iran, and whether those two countries see an opening to test the new president's resolve.
Mr. Christopher's visit to Kuwait is aimed at showing continued determination to make Iraq obey the United Nations.
"Their attitude is 'Show me . . . and show me again,' " the Arab diplomat says. "They have no inclination to be daring. [Egyptian PTC President Anwar] Sadat was an exception. They assess and reassess and when they're absolutely sure, they take a half step."
It took former Secretary of State Baker, backed by President Bush's determination to set up a peace process, a series of Middle East trips over nine months to arrange the Madrid conference that launched the series of bilateral and multilateral talks.
After 16 months, those talks have missed the Americans' first goal: an interim autonomy agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli-Syrian talks have foundered on how much of the Golan Heights Israel is prepared to give back and what kind of peace Syria envisions.
To make genuine progress, Arab leaders will demand, at a minimum, a U.S. commitment to begin and maintain a strong role, and signs that Mr. Clinton won't shrink from politically painful pressure on Israel.
Israel will need frequent assurances of the United States' continued commitment to its military and financial security.
An early test may come in the next Palestinian-Israeli talks. As tension mounts in the occupied territories, Palestinian negotiators are under growing pressure to produce tangible results and chafe at Israeli restrictions on what can be negotiated.
On the table, says Ms. Ashrawi, should be territory, Israel's security requirements and the status of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians call their capital.
They also want an end to Israeli vetoes over who can negotiate for the Palestinians and a resumption of the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel, however, appears to be more inclined to push for early progress in talks with Syria over the Golan Heights.
Faced with these obstacles, U.S. officials are at pains not to build up large expectations for Mr. Christopher's trip.
The trip is aimed, one said, at establishing personal relationships between the secretary of state and leaders in the region, underscoring the U.S. commitment to the peace process and drawing out the parties on their positions.
"This is a first-step trip. It needs to be understood in that context," the official said.