CAIRO — For the past 100 days, Arabs have been watching Israel with an eagle eye, waiting to see whether its new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the hard-line ideologue he seems to be or in fact a pragmatist, ultimately willing to make peace.
Now they feel they have their answer. With the clashes last week in Jerusalem and Palestinian-controlled areas, as well as rising tensions between Israel and its neighbors, especially Syria and Egypt, Arab attitudes toward Israel are reverting to hatred and mistrust. Observers say the climate is similar to relations before Egypt and Israel signed the first peace agreement in 1979. The trend threatens to spoil nearly 20 years of confidence-building, talk of peace, and economic partnerships, and return the region to a time when Arabs saw Israel as a cruel occupier of their land.
"There is a return to the psyche of the old Middle East, to the psychology of war and confrontation," says Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, editor in chief of International Politics, a Cairo-based quarterly magazine. "We have achieved very good things in the last two decades. More Arabs began to accept Israel, to deal with it as a legitimate state. These links are deteriorating very rapidly."
After Mr. Netanyahu's May 29 election, Arab sentiments toward Israel deteriorated as it became clear he would try to stall the peace process or avoid trading land for peace.
Now Arab criticism has become shrill: "What has taken place in Jerusalem cannot be justified except as aimed at obstructing peace efforts and harming the feelings of Muslims," says acting Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Hadi Majali.
Even before last week's clashes, a souring of relations between Egypt and Israel stemmed from what Cairo sees as Netanyahu's continual stiff-arming of the peace process, despite Egypt's efforts at mediation. Now it is unclear whether Egypt, despite its assurances, will hold a regional economic summit that is to include Israel in November.
On another front, Israeli-Syrian relations have gone from active peace talks to a near state of war. After a diplomatic impasse over how to proceed with negotiations, both sides have claimed the other is readying for attack. Syrian troop movements in Lebanon - where Syria keeps 35,000 soldiers - toward the Israeli border have increased tensions.
"If Netanyahu maintains his present position, I do not think that there is an outlet to achieve just and comprehensive peace in the region," Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said in an interview with CNN television.
"We've been trapped in this long [peace] process, but it's taking a great toll on our psyche," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "We'll come to conclude that it's hopeless, and if we want our rights back we must take them by force."