Unity of Israel's foes seen as a PLO windfall

The shock value of Israel's June 7 raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor, combined with a persistently bellicose line by Israel's Menachem Begin, is causing a flurry of attempts to patch up differences between Israel's foes.

And, surprisingly, some of them are making headway.

No diplomats are willing to say at this point how long the trend toward unity will last in this quarrelsome region -- or whether hostilities can actually be brought to a close in places like the Iran-Iraq border, the Western Sahara, or Lebanon -- but the signs of accord are unmistakable.

The main beneficiary from this trend is seen to be the beleaguered Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is at the center of the Arab-Israeli dispute and has taken an active role in attempting to bring about entente among Israel's foes. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat has just returned to Lebanon from visits to Morocco and Algeria, where he talked to leaders about settling the dispute over the Western Sahara.

Mr. Arafat also pushed for settlement of the Iran-Iraq was during the last week's emergency Araba Foreign minister's summit in Baghdad. And the nonconfrontation posture the PLO has followed in the 2 1/i-month-old Lebanese crisis has contributed to the containment of hostilities: A cease-fire there is now in its second week -- the longest respite Lebanon has had since March.

Although still far apart on the issues that caused the war, Iran and Iraq are beginning to open doors to each other. On June 16, under the International Red Cross, 17 Iraqi prisoners of war were exchanged for 25 Iranian POWs at Larnaca Airport in Cyprus. the simultaneous repatriation was the first since the Gulf war began in September 1980.

But the Middle East is nothing if not inconsistent. The thesis of unity is being mirrored by its discordant antithesis.

Concrete moves toward settling the Gulf war are still lacking. Both Baghdad and Tehran during the past week incorporated the news of the Israeli raid into their propaganda broadcasts. Iran accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of working with the Israelis to raid his own nuclear reactor in order to divert attention from alleged military debacles on the Iranian front. Iraqi radio equated "Persianism" with Zionism and said Iran collaborated with Israel in the June 7 raid.

Moreover, the Arab rallying to Saddam Hussein works to give him the sort of pan- Arab backing that will bolster Iraq in its "Arab-Persian war." And Tehran is now less likely to enter negotiations with Iraq than it was only a month ago due to the declining fortunes of Iranians moderates, such as President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.

At the same time, hostilities between the leaders of Jordan and Syria -- which had died down during the recent Syrian-Israeli confrontation - bubbled up once again after three Jordanian Muslim Brothers were reportedly kidnapped June 10 at Beirut airport. A Syrian engineer was abducted later in apparent retaliation. Jordan's King Hussein, meanwhile, said any Arab not supporting Israel" -- a connection directed against Syria's Hafez Assad, who has supported Iran in the Gulf war.

These quite significant exceptions -- and no doubt a few other -- aside, the overall effect of the Israeli raid was to bring back much of the fear and animosity between Arabs and Israelis that began to decline with the Camp David process.

The PLO is seizing the drama of the Israeli raid to make its point about the need to unite in confronting Israel. Nothing so hurts their cause, say PLO officials, as d ivision in the Arab world.

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