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Arabs hedge their hope for Barak

Syria hints it's ready to renew peace negotiations. But new prime

When the landslide results of Israel's election beamed onto Arab satellite television channels late Monday, there was almost a palpable sigh of relief, and a muttered Il-Hamdulillah - God is great.

The sense of relief was not because Arabs expect that Ehud Barak, Israel's left-leaning prime minister-elect, will be a pushover in Arab-Israeli peace talks. Instead, the relief was over the defeat of incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, who was blamed across the Arab world for single-handedly destroying the peace process.

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Mr. Barak vows to reverse that, within a year withdrawing Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. That would almost certainly require a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights, a peace track that has been on ice since 1996.

While Arab papers and the "street" applaud the fall of Mr. Netanyahu - who is ironically a casualty of a democratic system that exists in Israel and nowhere in the Arab world - a sober look at some of Barak's policies has brought back stubborn realities - and caution.

"It's wrong to be euphoric about Barak," says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a political analyst at Cairo's semiofficial Al-Ahram newspaper. "The whole pattern has changed, but we're not back to the days of [peacemaking Prime Ministers] Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

"Barak is not for the Arab world at all. His first priority is to unify Israelis, to stop people from tearing each other up," Mr. Sid-Ahmed says. "He will start with the pro-peace camp and take it from there. The main danger [for Arabs] is to move on this euphoria."

Still, some expect swift steps to jump-start peace, such as a belated Israeli withdrawal from some Palestinian land agreed upon at the Wye River talks last October. Likely welcoming such a prospect, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said of the election result Monday: "I respect the choice of this democratic election, and I give my best wishes to Mr. Barak."

Yesterday, Tayyeb Abdel-Rahim, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority, said a Palestinian state would be declared before the end of the year.

Tough negotiator

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Few believe that Barak will be anything but a tough negotiator. As Israel's most decorated soldier and a former chief of staff, he did not win five medals for bravery by appeasing the Arab enemy. Famously, he led a hit squad in Lebanon in 1973 that killed three ranking Palestinian guerrillas. And he is widely believed to have played a role in a top-level assassination in Tunis, Tunisia.

From the moment of his victory speech, Barak has expounded on points that seem to mirror Netanyahu's own hard-line policies and have raised anxiety in Arab circles. These points include preserving a unified capital of Israel in Jerusalem - though Palestinians claim the occupied Arab east of the city for their own capital - maintaining "most" of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank that would make any eventual Palestinian state small and piecemeal, and not returning to pre-1967 war borders.

"With Barak we will suffer more, because this man is capable of giving us poison with honey," says Mahmoud Ajrami, the Gaza spokesman for a breakaway Palestinian group based in Damascus.

"The maximum that Barak is willing to give up does not meet the minimum aspirations of the Palestinians," adds Khaled Amyreh, a journalist and analyst in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Optimistic signs

Among more optimistic notes were those from Jordan, which has been a strategic US ally in the Mideast and a stabilizing influence for peace in the region.

Visiting the White House on Tuesday to seek economic relief for Jordan, King Abdullah said, "We are very optimistic on taking the peace process forward."

"Jordan was in a very critical situation, because dealing with Israel was very embarrassing and isolating us from our neighbors," says Hani Hourani, the director of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman. "With a Barak government we can improve our situation, and can help encourage other Arab countries to make their peace."

The election results have also elicited encouraging signs from Syria, which may be ready to restart peace talks. Complicated by the assassination of Mr. Rabin in November 1995, and then by suicide bus bombs, the talks were cut off by Israel in February 1996.

Netanyahu had vowed never to return an inch of the Golan, occupied by Israel in 1967, and in fact encouraged Jewish settlement there.

On Tuesday, official Syria radio said it hoped Barak would "make up for lost time" and "move very quickly on the Syria track" to achieve peace.

The previous Israel-Syria talks had progressed far enough that their chiefs of staff had met twice to hammer out security details. In one of those meetings, Israel's commander was Ehud Barak.

"The Syrians have some face-to-face contact with Barak," says Edward Djeredjian, a former ambassador to both Syria and Israel who now directs the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. "They know he's very engaged and more forward on the Israel-Syria front. Barak understands the geopolitics and knows you can't have a deal [without Damascus]."

Clashes with Hizbullah

Recent fighting has underlined the urgency. Israeli forces inflicted Lebanese casualties in an attack in southern Lebanon the day before the vote. Just hours after Barak's victory speech, Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbullah guerrillas responded by rocketing a town in northern Israel. "Nothing has happened that could make us decrease our resistance operation," Hizbullah deputy Sheikh Naeem Qassem said on Monday night. "An enemy is an enemy. Barak is on the enemy side."

Arab newspapers were flooded with editorials skeptical of Israel's new intentions, while some countries - such as Oman - suggested faster normalization of the Jewish state. Still, answers were likely to take time.

"Barak is for moving forward on procedure," says Al-Ahram's Sid-Ahmed. "But [so far] not for substance."

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