PARIS — Officials and analysts in the Arab world are beginning to believe that Israel's longstanding insistence on maintaining control over the occupied territories may be giving way to a more pragmatic approach involving territorial compromise.
This element of Arab official thinking, which has evolved over the last few months, explains the excitement that swept Arab capitals - although expressed in rather cautious statements - following the fall of Israel's hard-line Likud government last week.
Ironically, the perceived change in Israel comes about in the absence of a pro-Arab super- or regional power capable of countering Israel's military prowess. Many Arab officials have believed for decades that Israel would change its stand only if it were forced to do so by some larger military power.
But Arab officials and analysts do not expect the victory of Labor Party candidate Yitzhak Rabin, who led the Israeli Army's victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict but who now says he is ready for a territorial compromise, to break immediately the deadlock in the United States-sponsored Middle East peace talks.
Instead they hope that an emerging coalition between the Labor Party and the Israeli left will trigger a serious debate in Israel over the future of the Arab territories captured in 1967 and a possible dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
"This is the best scenario, a Labor coalition with the leftist power [in Israel] which is a driving force for peace and supports the two-state solution," said Cairo-based PLO official Nabil Shaath.
Dr. Shaath, who supervises the Palestinian negotiating team in the peace process, was referring to the emergence of the leftist Meretz alliance, which publicly supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as the third-ranking bloc in the Israeli parliament. Meretz is expected to become the chief power broker in the next Israeli Cabinet.
Labor, Meretz, and small Arab parties together could form a 62-to-58 majority coalition against the Likud and the right-wing religious parties.
The Arab reading of the results of the elections could be premature if, as many Israeli analysts argue, the Likud's defeat reflects its failure to deal with the country's domestic and economic problems, rather than widening dissent over the future of the occupied territories.
But judging from public statements, as well as interviews with Arab officials in the last three months, influencing Israeli public opinion has emerged as one of the few common dominators of the otherwise divided negotiating strategies of the Arab parties directly involved in the peace process. The Arab parties, particularly Jordan and the PLO, started actively gearing their policies to appeal to Israeli voters not long after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war.
King Hussein of Jordan apparantly realized that a change in Israeli public opinion could partially compensate for the imbalance of power resulting from that defeat and the collapse of the Communist bloc. He appeared last August on Jordan's English television channel to ask for Israeli public support for a settlement based on a territorial compromise.
Furthermore, Jordanian television, as part of an agreed-upon strategy with the PLO, has been broadcasting long interviews with PLO officials and Palestinian negotiators appealing for an Israeli withdrawal as a key to peace.
Arab officials say even Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who has in the past dismissed the possibility of an internal shift in the Israeli position, favoring the build-up of Arab military power, now sees the merits of influencing the Israeli public through allaying their fears about security.
A major factor that has made the Arab governments focus more attention on shifts inside Israel, in the view of some Arab officials, is that the seven-month long peace process has dampened earlier hopes that Washington would pressure the Likud government to accept a territorial compromise.
Although the US took an unusually tough stand in suspending $10 billion in loan guarantees intended to help Israel absorb Russian immigrants, Arab negotiators have concluded that short of a major shift in the Israeli position there could be no sigificant progress in the peace talks.
Most Arab negotiators now expect the US to provide the guarantees to Mr. Rabin, who has promised to freeze settlements, which could allow the US more leverage on the new government but will also place more pressure on the Arabs to be more conciliatory at the negotiating table.
"In the long term, [the election results] could be an opening to a historic compromise based on swapping land for peace," said a senior Arab official, "but in the immediate term the Arabs will come under pressure [by the US], as anything that Mr. Rabin will offer will be perceived as flexible compared with the totally uncompromising stand of the former government."