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Arabs, Especially Palestinians, Scramble for Unity on Israel

Separate peace efforts make common action against Netanyahu unlikely

The Arab world has been in a state of cautious anxiety since the May 29 Israeli elections.

On the one hand, Arab leaders await the first steps toward peace by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's next prime minister, to see if his actions match his hard-line rhetoric.

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On the other, they are furiously phoning and flying to each others' capitals trying to cobble together some semblance of a united front with which to meet the suddenly more conservative Israel.

But because each Arab country has long-since taken its own separate path to peace with Israel - and because of long-simmering tensions among the Arab states - a solid unity will likely prove elusive.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat were set to meet in Jordan June 5. And Saudi Arabia's King Fahd planned to host Mr. Mubarak and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad next week.

In the first such meeting, in Cairo June 3, Mubarak and Mr. Assad's different outlooks were clear.

Assad struck a tone of alarm: "We don't have the feeling that things are going well. We have to be alert, in order not to be fooled." Assad has much to lose, because one of Mr. Netanyahu's most strident campaign points was a refusal to give up the Golan Heights - a buffer zone of land that Israel captured in the 1967 war. Return of the Golan is Syria's primary condition for peace.

Mubarak, whose country was the first Arab country to make peace with the Jewish state in 1979, said Netanyahu's June 2 victory speech "did not inspire optimism," but he advised patience in waiting to determine the new Israeli government's actual behavior.

The difference between the two leaders was clear. But some observers believe that if Netanyahu sticks to his hard-line campaign rhetoric, the Arab countries may be propelled into unity. "Netanyahu's policies are so repelling for all Arabs that they might get together," well-known leftist Cairo journalist Mohammed Sid Ahmed said.

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This scenario is unlikely, however, as Netanyahu will probably compromise his campaign promises somewhat, many political analysts and diplomats said. He already sounded conciliatory towards the Arabs during his first post-election speech and in preliminary conversations with Hussein and Mubarak.

Netanyahu was not overly conciliatory towards the Palestinians, however. And it is they who have the most to lose from a Likud-led government, analysts say. Netanyahu's promises include not acceding to Palestinian statehood. It's also unclear whether he will honor an agreement to pull Israeli troops out of the West Bank town of Hebron.

A defensive Arafat, speaking in London, said, "The process has begun. And the peace train must reach the terminal because the forces for peace in the world will not allow the hands of the clock to be turned back to the times of calamity."

In one of the most striking examples contrasting reactions among Arabs, Jordan's King Hussein, who enjoyed close relations with Israel after signing a 1994 peace treaty, sounded the most upbeat after Netanyahu's victory. "I see no reason to put too much emphasis on this election and to say that the Israelis are moving away from peace," he said. Hussein said he looked forward to working with the new Israeli prime minister and felt assured the peace process would continue.

The key to the difference in Arafat and Hussein's responses may be in Palestinian suspicions about Hussein's intentions in the West Bank, which his Hashemite dynasty ruled from 1948 until it was captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

Unity between Jordan and the Palestinians, and all the Arab states, will take time, says Salama Ahmed Salama, managing editor of the Cairo-based daily newspaper, Al-Ahram. Some time will be needed to "overcome the suspicions and the doubts between the different parties since they aren't all on the same level of peace with Israel." he says.

Whether political unity among Arab states develops or not, one factor will help ensure stability in the region: trade. Businesses in the region have reacted calmly to Netanyahu's victory.

In Egypt, for instance, financiers of the 312-mile "peace pipeline" that will carry natural gas from Egypt to Israel, Jordan, and Gaza said Israel's election results would not affect the project. "Israel still wants to have a gas industry and Egypt has expressed a wish to sell gas, so from our perspective both sides will still be interested in having a peace pipeline," says Shane O'Leary, a vice president at Amoco, the parent of Egypt Oil Company, one of the firms behind the pipeline.

But should Netanyahu take a tough stand in negotiations, causing the peace process to falter, regional stability could be at risk, however. Some warn of violence.

"Incomplete peace the Israelis might think of imposing on Arabs would not bring security for Israel," said the Saudi newspaper Al-Bilad last week, "it would only delay briefly the moment of explosion."

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