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From minefield to mohair: Middle East countries step lightly toward peace

IN the Middle East, peace begins in a minefield. The site for the Oct. 26 signing of the second peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state was a goat-hair tent in a partially cleared minefield on the southern border between Israel and Jordan.

The minefield is an apt metaphor and a stark reminder of how gingerly outsiders need to tread in this tumultuous region - even the leader of the world's last remaining superpower.

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President Clinton is the first United States leader to venture onto Israeli soil since former President Jimmy Carter nudged Egypt and Israel into a peace pact 16 years ago.

The Israel-Jordan peace treaty adds new momentum to the efforts of Mr. Carter and other previous players for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

Already Mr. Clinton is looking at the next prize - peace between Israel and Syria - which could change the balance of forces in the Middle East.

Two problems confront peacemaking efforts: the broader initiative to win Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and the ultimate status of Palestinian autonomy. Israel's quest for normalization with some Arab states - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states - has been moving faster than implementation of the accord it signed with the Palestinians.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who staked his political future on an accord intended to keep alive the vision of a Palestinian state, is finding himself trapped between countervailing forces in the Arab world: the lure of the industrialized West and the rise of Islamic extremism.

Mr. Arafat is at odds with Islamic militants on one side and competing Arab leaders like Jordan's King Hussein on the other.

Israel has shifted its priority away from the accord with the PLO to broadening its ties with Arab states before entering final-status talks over Palestinian autonomy in 1996.

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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is already looking ahead to what it considers a more threatening problem: an Islamic Iran with nuclear power seeking to broaden its sphere of influence in such militant Arab states as Algeria, Iraq, and Libya.

In ``The Arabs in History,'' Bernard Lewis points out a change resulting from the end of superpower rivalry in the Middle East: ``For the first time in centuries, the countries of the Middle East are on their own, and can really determine their own destinies.''

At this critical time of opportunity for the Arab world, it is more divided than ever before, and there is a leadership vacuum. This begs the question: Can there be a lasting peace in the Middle East as long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved and the West fails to understand the dynamics in Arab society?

In ``The Arabs,'' journalist David Lamb notes: ``The mosques are indeed fuller today in the Arab world than ever before.... To a large extent the Arabs are misjudged in the West - and caricatured in a manner once reserved for blacks....

``Yet in two-decades time, moving from illiteracy to video in a single step, they have become an important new global force, if not a power.... I am certain: We need to get to know each other better ... the destiny of the Arabs will affect the destiny of us all.''

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