In this handout provided by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) arrives November 20, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Courtesy Getty Images.
Washington, DC - The history books may speak highly of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Middle East peace won't be one of the reasons.
Time and again over her four years in office, tentative steps toward reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians have been dashed, just as they have been for most of her predecessors.
In that context, Clinton's shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo tonight and Wednesday amounts to a last-minute effort to prevent further deterioration in a situation that, at best, has remained mostly stagnant throughout the Obama administration.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the goal is to restore calm and improve conditions in order to "get Israel and the Palestinians back to the table to discuss lasting solutions."
Clinton is likely to leave office early next year after two decades on the national stage as first lady, U.S. senator and America's top diplomat. Her favorable ratings in national polls are sky-high at 66%, and her prospects as the next Democratic presidential candidate are higher than anyone else's - should she seek the nomination.
Yet her many successes as secretary of State - from the diplomatic opening to Burma, which she visited with Obama this week, to the coalition-building that led to the overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi - may be overshadowed by what she and Obama could not do: bring peace to the Middle East.
Asked about that in an interview with USA TODAY in May, she joked about the degree of difficulty. "I can't remember who got that done," she said. "I can't remember that exactly."
Besides the obvious difficulty of bringing israel and the Palestinian Authority together - further complicated by the administration's refusal to meet with Hamas, which governs Gaza - Clinton cannot stop the world long enough to ignore other hot spots such as Iran and North Korea.
The administration has made Asia its top diplomatic priority, as evidenced by the trip Obama and Clinton just completed to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.
"It would be, I think, malpractice to say, 'I'm only working on this thing, and I'm just going to beat it into the ground. Everything else can just wait,'" she said in May.
The administration tried to make inroads in the Middle East initially. Obama's first phone call to a foreign leader as president was to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The administration came down hard against Israeli settlements in the West Bank but later backed off. In June 2009, Obama delivered his much-ballyhooed speech to the Arab world in Cairo. Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, who brokered peace in Northern Ireland during the Clinton administration, was installed as special envoy to the region.
Yet as the years have passed, "they've tried to make it look like they're doing something but without really doing anything," says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Now the administration can't afford to remain on the sidelines, says Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a former adviser to six secretaries of State. Clinton, he says, could wind up shuttling between the various sides, including new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who has said he wants to broker a cease-fire.
"They can no longer afford to be not much more directly identified with this issue," Miller says of the Obama administration, describing the Middle East as a "cruel and unforgiving world."
Some see U.S. diplomacy paying immediate dividends. Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the liberal National Security Network, says just the pending arrival of Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon may have prompted Egypt and Hamas to consider a cease-fire.
Still, no one should expect a kumbaya moment to come from Clinton's visit, she says.
"This is not something she can accomplish and get home and have a turkey," Hurlburt says. "It's going to be handed to whoever her successor is and others in the administration."
Contributing: Oren Dorell