Key Arab Neighbors Consult on New Israel
Disappointed by the election of right-wing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, key Arab governments consulted on a possible united response Friday and said they expect him to honor commitments already made in the Middle East peace process.
In what appeared to be an acknowledgment of widespread Arab concern, Netanyahu in one of his first post-election acts phoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan and pledged that his government will continue working toward peace.
Netanyahu also expressed a wish to visit Egypt in the next few weeks and explain his views, Egyptian state television said.
Netanyahu’s election campaign had stressed that he would be tougher in the face of Arab demands than defeated Prime Minister Shimon Peres--expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, refusing to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state and not entertaining discussion of changes in the status of Jerusalem.
Arab unease was heightened Friday by statements from Ariel Sharon, a hawkish member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, that the new government might reconsider elements of Israel’s 1993 peace accord with the Palestinians.
As Netanyahu was making courtesy calls to Arab neighbors, Egypt’s foreign minister, Amir Moussa, was consulting in the Syrian capital, Damascus, with Syrian leader Hafez Assad. The meeting was apparently meant to prepare the way for an Egyptian-Syrian summit to consider Arab options in light of the Likud candidate’s victory.
“The euphoria that followed the Oslo accords [the interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993] is dead,” said Tahseen Basher, onetime advisor to Mubarak and to former President Anwar Sadat. “The peace process as we have known it will slow to a virtual halt.”
Publicly, governments tried to put the best face on the defeat of the Labor Party government of Peres, which championed a vision of a “new Middle East” in which Israel would trade territory in order to end nearly five decades of conflict with Arab states.
Mubarak--whose country was the first in the Arab world to make peace with Israel--said Egypt accepts “the views of the Israeli people” and welcomes Netanyahu’s pledge “to press ahead” with the peace process.
King Hussein wished Israel’s new leader luck in achieving “a just and comprehensive peace in the region.”
Arab newspapers, however, treated the electoral result as proof of alleged Israeli indifference to a just peace.
“The entire world saw a vote for Peres as a vote for striving toward peace, but the Israelis made their choice clear: They do not want peace,” wrote Abdelwahhab Badrakham in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat.
Likud wants to have only a “symbolic” peace deal while maintaining its “occupation” of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Jerusalem, the paper said.
Arab governments should close ranks and slow down normalization of relations with Israel, said an editorial Friday in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat.
“The new political reality created by the Israeli elections requires the Arabs to conduct a realistic rethink of their peace strategy and seek to promote a just peace through collective action and a unified approach,” the paper said.
The state-controlled Syrian daily Al Thawra urged international pressure on the new Israeli government.
“The elections are being used to retreat from, and renege on, all commitments and to evade once and for all the peace process and its consequences,” it said.
Before the election, King Hussein had played host to Netanyahu in Jordan in an attempt to nurture ties to the Likud leader.
But while their personal relationship is cordial, Jordan could face major economic and political problems if the peace process is frozen, since at least 60% of its population is Palestinian.
Any logjams in the peace process could also be harmful to the government of Egypt, which is faced with an internal challenge by a strong militant Islamic movement that draws strength in part from dissatisfaction over the government’s relations with Israel.
Unless the new Israeli government shows a fresh commitment to pursue peace, the region could be entering “an era more perilous than any in the past,” warned Jordan’s largest newspaper, Al Rai.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.