Arabs split over whom they want to win Israeli election

If Israel's Arab foes could vote in the approaching Israeli election, the result might well be a split decision. With opinion polls suggesting the opposition Labor Party could oust the right-wing government on July 23, two Arab camps are emerging.

The first, which includes the Egyptians, Jordanians, and possibly Yasser Arafat-line Palestinians, would favor a Labor victory. The second group, which includes Syria and Mr. Arafat's Palestinian rivals, either would not welcome a Labor victory, or could not care less.

The recent Syrian-Israeli prisoner exchange has highlighted Arab rifts on the Israeli-election issue. The widespread Mideast perception is that the deal was timed opportunely for Israel's incumbent conservatives.

To be sure, Syria got a good deal. It won release of some 300 of its own POWs in return for a half-dozen captive Israelis. But still, says a veteran analyst of Mideast affairs, ''Syria did decide to go through with the deal despite its implications for the Israeli election campaign.''

Why? Many analysts saw the move as evidence that Syria sees nothing to gain from a Labor victory. Given recent Labor statements, such reasoning would not be surprising. Labor's position on Arab-Israeli negotiation is more conciliatory than that of the ruling coalition. But Labor has also played down the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in favor of seeking accommodation with Jordan's King Hussein over the West Bank.

Syria has been at odds with the King, and with Arafat. One engine for the rivalry is Syria's conviction that Jordan and Arafat are inching toward a separate deal with Israel that would leave Syria alone to carry the military weight of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nayef Hawatmeh, a prominent PLO critic of Arafat, suggested in a Newsweek interview another reason Arab ''hard-liners'' may not be aching for a Labor victory: ''Our experience in the past with the Israeli Labor Party has been a tragic one.'' He alluded to Labor's domination of Israeli politics for three decades until 1977 without any sign of meeting PLO demands for a Palestinian state.

Even relative Arab moderates share a gut skepticism about the degree to which the Israeli election can help resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. Arafat remarked recently that Labor is more ''flexible'' than the Likud, but then added that both sought equally unacceptable goals.

Egyptian officials have, in public, avoided direct comment on the elections since recent signs of a tilt toward Labor sparked official Israeli comment. Yet privately, ranking Egyptians argue that there are only two realistic catalysts for reheating their ''cold peace'' with Israel, or for a breakthrough on Arab-Israeli peace.

The first alternative, officials say, would be a change in policy by the present Israeli government on such issues as Lebanon and settlement of the West Bank. This is deemed unlikely. Meanwhile, Israel says Egypt should take the first step, for instance, by returning its ambassador to Israel. The second catalyst, Egyptian officials suggest privately, would be a Labor victory at the polls.

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