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Israel's Arens vs. Sharon - a hawk of a different feather

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After living through the era of flamboyant, unpredictable ex-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who led them through the Lebanon war, Israelis are beginning to assess the five-month performance of his successor, Moshe Arens.

This performance is critical because Mr. Arens will have to guide Israel's tortuous withdrawal from Lebanon in the face of Syrian obstinacy, as well as future policy on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

It gains in importance as the increasing withdrawal of Prime Minister Menachem Begin from active political life - in the wake of his wife's death and the disappointing aftermath of the war in Lebanon - gives rise to speculation about his successor.

And Mr. Arens is being closely watched by the United States, where he just concluded a successful stint as Israel's ambassador, because he has played a key role in improving sagging US-Israeli relations.

There is no question that the slight, bespectacled, low-key but firm Mr. Arens is vastly different in style from his loud, rough-talking, corpulent predecessor, who was nicknamed the ''Bulldozer.'' ''The main advantage of Arens is that he is not Sharon,'' wrote an Israeli journalist.

Given Mr. Sharon's brilliant but erratic nature, such differences of style can have a large impact on policy. More complex is the issue of differences in substance.

Both men are hawks. But Mr. Sharon, brought up in a Labor Party family, was described by a knowledgeable military correspondent as a ''pragmatist and a careerist,'' who might conceivably have been ''capable of supporting a Palestinian state'' if he thought this was in Israel's interest. In fact, Mr. Sharon once asked a left-wing Israeli politician to arrange a meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat (which never came off).

''With Moshe Arens, this would be impossible,'' noted military writer Eitan Haber of the conservative daily Yedioth Aharanoth.

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