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Where Will Bibi Lead?

Five Israeli-Arab wars, scores of bitter clashes, two oil boycotts, and a related war over oil in half a century are far more than enough.

So we join Jordan's King Hussein and the moderate American Jewish Congress in trusting that Israel's new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, will continue to change in the direction of pragmatism.

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Fundamentally that requires strong leadership from three quarters:

1. From Bibi Netanyahu himself - resisting demands of his minority partners who urge major new funding of Jewish settlements to create "greater Israel" amid Palestinians on the West Bank. Also, a mature realization that his absolutist toughness in gaining power won't work well in governing a divided populace and dealing with the US.

2. From Yasser Arafat - continuation of his crackdown on Hamas militants, while he sees how Netanyahu approaches the Palestinian peace accords.

3. From the US and Europe - willingness to stay involved but be tough. That means that both the Clinton administration and Congress should make continuance of subsidies to Israel and Arafat's regime contingent on realistic evidence that bargaining - not bombing - will be used to gain objectives.

Those who know the obstinate toughness that has characterized Mr. Netanyahu's rise may question his inclination to "do a Nixon." Connoisseurs of Mr. Arafat's decades of tacking and dodging to hold power may worry about his inclination or ability to hold back militants. And the tendency of Congress to pay up and avoid unpleasantness is amply documented.

But read the Bible. It abounds in profiles of leaders who grew and changed. From Moses to Saul of Tarsus there is ample precedent for the deepening of character and responsibility that led Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin to change. Those leaders from opposite parties came to see a need to abandon enemy bashing in favor of step-by-step moves toward normal relations with neighbors.

There is nothing inevitable in the historic warring of the Children of Israel and the Philistines. Rabin and King Hussein found benefits from wary but trustworthy neighborliness. Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Arafat had begun to find similar benefits.

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It now falls to Benjamin Netanyahu to help design the future for peoples who, like it or not, must be neighbors. He has won the power he long sought. Now he must use it to bring his people not a sixth war and endless confrontation, but safety and commerce within that neighborhood.

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