Arab view bleak, with some hope

Israel's neighbors hope Sharon defies his harsh record and makes peace for good.

Some Arabs say that Israel's leadership has gone from bad to worse. Others say the election was a meaningless choice between "the devil and Satan." Still others say this moment may be the darkness that precedes the dawn.

The most palpable Arab reaction to Israel's election Tuesday is the fear that Ariel Sharon's leadership could exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and draw the Middle East into a wider conflict.

But there is also the hope that Mr. Sharon, at the pinnacle of a career in which he has become known as a militarist and a killer of Arabs, may defy his own history and become the first Israeli leader to reach a comprehensive peace with his neighbors.

"I think Sharon is going to sign a peace deal," says Hisham Yanis, a prominent actor and entertainer in Jordan and a fervent promoter of his country's 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

Here in Syria, which remains at war with Israel, Sharon's overwhelming victory stirs a sense of bitter vindication.

The result "illustrates the real feelings of the majority of the Israelis," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at the University of Damascus. "We have always said that the majority of Israelis are not for peace. Only a minority."

Syria's Al-Baath newspaper, the official organ of the ruling party, takes the analysis one step further. "The Zionist entity has reached its highest level of extremism," the paper said yesterday. "It is pushing the region towards a devastating explosion through which Israel plans to eliminate the peace process and revive its plans to affirm its occupation of Arab lands and extend its control over the whole Arab world."

Mixed messages

Of course, Sharon himself is promising something quite different: to unite Israel in the pursuit of a peace deal. Israeli opinion polls indicate that a majority of the population continues to favor ceding land in order to end hostility with the Palestinians and Israel's neighbors.

Even so, the election sows confusion about Israeli intentions. "The Israelis have not made up their minds about what the peace process is," says Kamel Abu Jaber, the head of Jordan's Institute of Diplomacy in Amman. "They are interested in the process but not actual peace. This atmosphere produces people like Sharon."

Sharon will have to answer for a bloody past that includes indirect responsibility - as determined by an official Israeli inquiry - for a massacre that remains his most infamous moment in Arab eyes. During Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which Sharon orchestrated as defense minister, Christian militiamen allied with Israel entered a Palestinian refugee camp and slaughtered hundreds of people, including women and children.

That is why only hardened optimists like the exuberant Mr. Yanis are willing to sound hopeful right away.

In Egypt, one of two Arab states that signed a peace treaty with Israel, restraint is the order of the day. "We will wait and see what Sharon will do," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters at the end of a visit to Kuwait. "Will it be a policy of peace or that of suppression?"

Abdel-Monem Said, one of Egypt's foremost strategic analysts and not a man prone to overstatement, calls Israel's new prime minister a "right-wing fanatic who relies on power." Sharon "has no project for peace; he has no project for reconciliation with the Arabs," says Dr. Said, who heads the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "At heart he is a racist."

Headline writers and commentators in the Arab media echoed his views. Before the vote, one Syrian paper likened the contest between Sharon and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to a choice between "the devil and Satan." After the result was known, the editor of a Lebanese daily concluded that "a ghoul has replaced a monster."

Overcoming these perceptions may well become Sharon's biggest challenge. But Arab observers also note that he will have a difficult time containing Israel's domestic political turmoil, which may limit his freedom of maneuver in dealing with the Arabs.

On the bright side

"Sharon's victory does not mean that he has succeeded and that he will achieve his political, social, and economic agenda," says Ghazi Al-Sa'adi, director of the Dar Al Jalil Center for Studies in Amman, Jordan. "His biggest obstacle will be to create a new government."

While the tone of most Arab coverage was grim, as if the region were preparing for the worst, no one was crying any tears for Mr. Barak. Many Arabs saw him as a leader who promised a peace he couldn't deliver and took actions that undermined his words.

"Barak has been the worst prime minister in the history of the region, even the world," asserts Dr. Abu Jaber of Jordan's Institute of Diplomacy.

Even in Syria, it's possible to find observers willing to look on the bright side. Political sociologist Imad Fawzi Shueibi, who teaches at the University of Damascus, says that if Sharon comes down too hard on the Palestinians, he may be unseated by a fractious Israeli parliament and a resurgent Israeli left.

Dr. Shueibi, like some other Arab analysts, observes that Israeli hard-liners have the standing to convince their nation to make the concessions necessary for peace. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin - who signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 - was a member of Sharon's Likud party.

Another possibility, then, is that Sharon "may try to clear his black history of terrorism, like Begin did," Shueibi says.

Jumana Heresh contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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