Arabs Watch Intently As Israel Shapes Policy
Hope rises as Labor peace plans emerge; so do worries of Arab split
AMMAN, JORDAN — EARLIER this week, Jordanians across the country switched to Israeli television and radio to monitor the debate in the Israeli parliament that resulted in a vote of confidence for the government of newly elected Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
There was a general feeling - one that gripped even the staunchest opponents of the peace talks with Israel - that the installation of Mr. Rabin's government was a moment crucial to the fate of Jordan and the Palestinian people.
But the enormous interest that Jordanians and Palestinians showed in the developments on the other side of the Jordan River was not confined to Rabin's speech. Most were more interested in measuring the shift inside Israel's parliament (Knesset) in favor of a withdrawal from the oc-cupied territories and the recognition of Pal-estinian national rights.
"There is definitely a significant positive shift that we have to acknowledge, but that we also should not exaggerate," said Marwan al-Barghouti, a Palestinian activist who was deported by Israel four years ago.
While official and public reactions in the Arab world indicated some disappointment in Rabin's opening declarations, many here are heartened by the heated debate in the Knesset that preceded the vote of confidence, and the structure of the new government. There is hope that a gradual shift in Israeli public opinion will eventually pave the way to peaceful cohabitation.
According to political analysts and observers, ordinary people in Jordan, and probably other parts of the Arab world, are impressed by the participation of the Israeli leftist coalition, Meretz, in the government, and the support given the new Cabinet by the Israeli Arab deputies.
"These are two factors that will positively influence Arab public opinion toward the peace process. What people saw on the Israeli television was that there is a bloc that supports Palestinian rights struggling inside the Knesset and even the Cabinet," said one politician.
But Rabin's offer to meet Arab leaders - excluding the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - in Jerusalem or any Arab capital was not seen as a goodwill gesture. It was viewed as another Israeli attempt to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors without withdrawing from the occupied territories or addressing Palestinian demands.
Judging from official reactions, the Arab governments and the PLO see an important shift toward territorial compromise, but are extremely alarmed by the absence of any Israeli reference to United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for a peaceful settlement based on exchanging land for peace.
Rabin's commitment to what he describes as "security settlements" in the occupied territories - in contrast to the "political settlements" he opposes - implies to Arab governments and the PLO that the new government has no plans to budge on East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. The Heights were held by Syria until 1967.
Yesterday's announcement by Israeli officials that the country would freeze all unsigned contracts for new settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip sparked Arab fears that Rabin is developing a strategy that will drive a wedge among the Arab negotiators on the eve of a tour by US Secretary of State James Baker III. Mr. Baker will attempt to spur on the eight-month-old peace process.
In an attempt to prevent a rift, King Hussein, the Jordanian monarch, suddenly flew to Damascus yesterday to coordinate the Arab position before Baker's arrival in the region.
In the view of Arab officials and analysts Rabin's tactic seems to aim at offering a flexible position toward the Palestinians and Jordan while maintaining a hard-line stand toward Syria and Lebanon.
The expected flexibility was already expressed in Rabin's commitment to autonomy and Palestinian elections - two points which were described by senior PLO official Mahmoud Abbas, one of the major architects of Palestinian diplomacy, "as very positive points."
Palestinians were particularly encouraged that in his speech Rabin did not spell out an outright rejection of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state - a goal that the Palestinians hope that autonomy will produce.
"There are definitely vague points and loopholes in Rabin's statements in our favor ... but the most important point in Rabin's speech is that he cautioned the Palestinians that they should not expect everything they want," said Ghazi Saadi, who runs the Jalil Research Center on Israeli and Palestinian affairs in Amman.
"Rabin is offering much more than [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir yet at the same time [not a] commitment to UN Security Council resolutions," an analyst close to the Jordanian government said. "But the problem is that Washington will blame the Arabs for stalling the process if they reject Rabin's overtures or even show reluctance."