IF the difference between war and peace in the Middle East were a mere matter of four per cent, then Madeleine Albright would not be having so many sleepless nights. But with a lot of history and even more politics threatening to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the United States has found one of its favourite roles - mediator in the world's fiercest conflicts - turning into a diplomatic nightmare. The glorious achievement of more than four years ago - when President Bill Clinton glowed as arch-foes Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn - now seems distant for a US administration which has found itself under criticism for its role as referee in the peace process. The frantic activity of the past 10 days, as the US has locked horns with Israel, one of its closest allies, has not only distracted Washington's attention from other important issues - not least the nuclear tensions growing in South Asia - it has also brought into question America's ability to broker the kind of lasting peace the Oslo accord seemed to promise. How, pundits are asking, did President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright and their aides allow themselves to fumble negotiations over the key issue of further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to leave Washington late today following an extremely effective week of lobbying - which he kicked off with an unusually blunt snub by refusing to take part in talks with Ms Albright and Palestinian chairman Mr Arafat. Ms Albright is to meet Mr Clinton in London tomorrow to discuss - as her spokesman James Rubin put it yesterday - 'whether there's any point continuing the effort'. Talks have continued to stall over how to bridge the four per cent gulf between Mr Arafat's demand that Tel Aviv give up another 13 per cent of West Bank land and Mr Netanyahu's seemingly intractable bottom line of nine per cent. But the US Government's success in brokering a landmark peace deal in Northern Ireland - where it played a neutral hand - is being contrasted to its alienation of Israel through its repeated demands that it accept Mr Arafat's land demands. For once, Ms Albright's celebrated hardball style seems to have failed, coming up against an Israeli leader with hawkish views on security, who is under intense political pressure from colleagues not to back down. The placement of several artificial deadlines on Mr Netanyahu to cave in has only resulted in a series of embarrassing retreats by the US team. Matters were not helped by perhaps the biggest diplomatic blunder of First Lady Hillary Clinton's time in Washington - when she made repeated remarks advocating a Palestinian state and had to be contradicted publicly by her husband's spokesman. The powerful lobby of Jewish voters in America, while not entirely sympathetic to Mr Netanyahu, has now rallied to his side, joined by key Republicans in Congress who see the issue as a potential vote-grabber in November's elections. US aides know that both Israel and the Palestinans have drifted from promises made in Oslo - with Mr Netanyahu's stubborn stance on West Bank settlements stemming largely from a perception that Mr Arafat has not stopped encouraging anti-Israeli terrorism. But a key failure has been that of Mr Clinton to repair the frostiness in his relationship with the Israeli leader - who after his 1996 election reversed the liberal path taken by his late predecessor, Mr Rabin, of whom Mr Clinton was greatly fond. And Mr Netanyahu has refused to be underestimated. 'No one seriously expects Israel to defer the decisions on vital security concerns that affect the Israeli future to the US,' he said last week. Speculation is now rife that Mr Netanyahu is privately banking on an 11 per cent compromise position in return for greater assurances from the Palestinian side on security matters. But with the lives of 160,000 Jewish settlers at stake, much work still has to be done on the exact locations of any pullback.