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Begin's opportunity now

Prime Minister Begin faces a challenge beyond the formation of a new coalition government for his country. It is to reassume his discarded mantle of statesmanship now that the domestic electoral wars are over. It is to return to the high ground that permitted the start of the Mideast peace process; to reject the trend toward rigid ideology and territorial aggrandizement that have undercut this process; to restore Israeli in the world's eyes as a cherishable rescuer of a people rather than a defiant settler of occupied lands and an internationally condemned raider outside its borders.

To recognize the present negative image of Israel is not to overlook the pro-Arab terrorrism and hostility to which it has been subjected -- nor to flag for a moment in support of Israel and its positive achievements as an independent democratic state. The point is whether the negative aspects cannot now be ameliorated by the same indomitable leader who has been so much indentified with causing them.

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At this writing Mr. Begin appeared in a position to go ahead with the coalition, though the official returns in an extremely close election are not due till next week. Is he also in a position to set a new government on the path toward the internationally acceptable conduct that would be Israel's best guarantee of the security it so desperately wants and needs? Doubts have been raised by Mr. Begin's having to negotiate with religious parties whose price could be even more ideology, more theocracy, more bellicosity, more internationally outlawed settlements. In that event, it would become harder and harder for President Sadat to continue the peace process in the face of his fellow Arabs' opposition; harder for Europeans dependent on Arab oil to tolerate Israeli intransigence; harder for Israel's best friend, the United States, to sell American taxpayers on endless aid and arms transfers.

But this sad situation need not come to pass if Mr. Begin returns to the Camp David spirit -- the spirit so prayerfully celebrated by him and Mr. Sadat and President Carter -- even though the Camp David process is at a standstill. And if enough other Israelis accompany or speed him on the way.

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