Arabs Hedge Their Hope for Barak Syria Hints It's Ready to Renew Peace Negotiations. but New Prime

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

Arabs Hedge Their Hope for Barak Syria Hints It's Ready to Renew Peace Negotiations. but New Prime


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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 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. …

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