WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will fly to Norway today to begin heaving the Middle East peace process up its next and probably biggest mountain: the "final status" negotiations that are supposed to set the borders of Israel, the fate of Jerusalem and the future of millions of Palestinian refugees.
Meeting in Oslo with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Clinton wants to impart new momentum to a process perceived by some as stalled since September, when Israel and the Palestinians agreed to implement the Wye River interim pact that was signed last year in Maryland.
"We are in the very difficult endgame discussions with a very aggressive schedule ahead of us," a senior administration official said last week. "The president sees a good opportunity in Oslo to push that process forward."
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross met repeatedly with Palestinian and Israeli leaders last week to establish their positions ahead of the summit. But nobody is holding out hope of breakthroughs in Oslo. Rather, U.S. officials said they see a chance to set the tone and forge some organizational foundations for the critical year to come.
The leaders gathering in Oslo face several quickly approaching deadlines, some political and some natural, some flexible and some stone-cast.
The first was officially set Friday, when both sides agreed to begin negotiations on a final peace treaty on Nov. 7.
By February, Arafat and Barak are supposed to agree to a framework of ground rules for negotiations that would cap two decades of slow rapprochement between the two sides. By September, they're supposed to sign a final-status accord.
Few will be surprised if those goals, set two months ago, are missed. The Middle East peace process seldom runs on time, and the issues are exponentially more inflammatory and difficult than anything dealt with so far.
"Since Kissinger started the peace process with shuttle diplomacy back in the '70s, always people said, 'Let's do the easy stuff first and let's save the hard stuff until the end,' " an Israeli diplomat said last week, referring to former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. "And we're finally coming to the end."
Behind the artificial deadlines lie some harder realities that will make the three leaders anxious to reach a landmark accord by the end of next year, analysts said.
Clinton, whose presidency ends in early 2001, wants a major foreign policy legacy. Arafat also is courting history, and, at age 70 and in uncertain health, he might not have much longer to do so.
Barak, elected in May on a pledge to resolve Israel's conflicts with not just Palestinians but also with Syria and Lebanon, risks the chance that Arafat might unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state if negotiations drag on too long.
He and Arafat believe that the political moment is right for resolving big issues, Middle East specialists said, and they must act before it passes.
"The major incentives for both parties are built into the process," said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Neither side has real unilateral options. Both parties need to have an agreement, and they need to have it by September or things are going to get out of hand."
Clinton's part is delicate but crucial.
As usual, U.S. peace-process tools include mediation, economic rewards for good behavior and the authority of the world's only superpower.
Reaching a framework agreement by February might require an intensive Camp David-style session in which Clinton, Barak and Arafat would retreat into seclusion until they could produce a road map of final negotiations, U.S. officials said.
But America can't be overbearing. A final-status accord is more likely to be successful if the two sides and the world at large perceive it as locally grown, U.S. officials said.
In that light, the Oslo meetings tomorrow and Tuesday offer the perfect opening for Clinton.
The original reason for the trip was to honor Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed a breakthrough accord with Arafat six years ago and who was assassinated two years later. Oslo was the scene of important secret meetings leading up to the Rabin-Arafat pact.
The visit will also let Clinton lend impetus to the process without making it look as if he's running the show. Before commemorating Rabin tomorrow, Clinton will meet separately with Barak and Arafat and then talk with them together on Tuesday.
"Oslo is an attempt to prevent backsliding," said Kenneth Stein, a professor at Emory University and a Middle East specialist at the Carter Center in Atlanta. "Oslo is an attempt to get them to commit to the next stage."
Clinton will arrive in Oslo carrying a weighty embarrassment, however. Congress has refused to approve $500 million in foreign aid that the White House pledged to support the Wye River agreement.
Clinton vetoed a $12.7 billion foreign aid bill this month that fell $2 billion below his request and failed to include Wye funds.
The Wye accord required Israel to give up land to Palestinian control in exchange for security promises, and the United States agreed to help pay for Palestinian infrastructure and Israeli security.
One major message Clinton must carry to Oslo is assurance that the money -- part of a three-year $1.9 billion American aid package tied to Wye -- will be available, analysts said.
"If there's one particular issue" that is most important for the United States to bring to the peace process, "I think that's it," a senior administration official said of the Wye money.
Clinton has told Barak and Arafat "that he's working on it, and he will keep working on it, and he intends to live up to the commitments he has made," the official said.
Nothing in the long thawing of Palestinian-Israeli relations compares to the work ahead. Until now, agreements have been incremental -- a few square miles of land handed over, a few hundred prisoners released.
Relatively soon, Arafat hopes to head a Palestinian nation with its capital in Jerusalem.
Arafat also wants an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and he demands the return of Palestinian refugees displaced after Israel's creation in 1947 and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war.
More than 2 million Palestinians are dispersed throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the world. Many are in refugee camps. Many of their families left land in what is now Israel.
Barak, who demands "one unified Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel," refuses to pull back to Israel's pre-1967 borders, as Arafat desires. He insists that any Palestinian entity must not have an army, and he rejects the right of return for refugees.
Both leaders say they seek an end to decades of bloodshed and a foundation for economic growth and prosperity.
All sides dismiss notions that the peace process has bogged down since Barak agreed in September to implement the Wye agreement.
Final-status talks were launched in September, but Israel appointed its chief negotiator, Oded Eran, only last week.
"There is a perception in the region that negotiations, if not completely stalled, are going a lot slower," Telhami said.
Business likely to get done in Oslo includes agreements about which subcommittees should negotiate what issues, how often to meet and other details, officials said.