Arab World Eyes Israel With Caution

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WASHINGTON: As leaders of the Arab world come to terms with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister of Israel, they have begun mapping out their strategies on dealing with what may prove to be a much tougher Israeli government. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Damascus on Monday, Syrian President Hafez Assad told reporters that he will not commit to peace talks with Israel until he learns more about the positions of Israel's new prime minister. "We have to be fully alert and on guard," said the Syrian president. Other Arab leaders are expressing similar misgivings. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had staked much of his political career on the reelection of Peres, flew to London Monday to ask British Prime Minister John Major for assistance in keeping the peace process alive. "We are in need of your help," a worried Arafat told Major. TIME's Scott MacLeod reports: "If Netanyahu halts the negotiations with Palestinians or, even worse, reverses some of the headway already made, then Arafat will not be able to deliver on the promises he gave the Palestinians in making significant concessions to Israel. His credibility and the leadership of the Palestinian movement is at stake." President Clinton wrote to Mubarak, Hussein, Assad and Arafat over the weekend, reaffirming his commitment to Middle East peace. But given Clinton's own reelection concerns, MacLeod reports that it is unlikely that the President will put much pressure on Israel before November.

Further underscoring the apprehension of Arab leaders, Mubarak, Arafat and King Hussein will meet in Jordan on Wednesday. "This meeting is a clear reaction of concern," says MacLeod. "It would appear that it may be the first step of an important move towards Arab unity and solidarity in the face of the expected shifts in Israel." Although none of the leaders, other than Arafat, have anything to lose in the short term if the peace process is delayed, they all face increasing pressures in the long-term. "In the absence of peace agreements which move things forward, both politically and economically, the problem of Islamic militancy and terrorism becomes more acute," reports MacLeod. "Extremists in Israel create political room for Islamic extremists in the Arab world." Both Egypt and Jordan worry about militants. Egypt has contained a significant Muslim Brotherhood movement so far, but with increasing difficulty. Jordan, where sixty percent of the population is Palestinian, worries about any Palestinian-Israeli unrest spilling back over its own border. Netanyahu's moves in the coming weeks thus have broad implications, not only for Middle East peace and the ability of the U.S. to mediate it, but for the stability of some of Israel's most important neighbors. -->