Experience Teaches Arabs Caution on Peace Process

THE Labor Party victory in Israel's June elections have raised hopeful expectations for the Middle East peace process.

These expectations grew when the new Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin decided to freeze the construction of new settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Earlier, the Israeli Cabinet had ordered a review of all decisions made by previous governments on building Jewish settlements. And the recent meeting between Mr. Rabin and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was the first of its kind since former Prime Minister Shimon Peres (now Israel's foreign minister) visited Cairo in 1986.

Does this mean real progress in the peace process?

Arabs' experience has taught us not to have exaggerated hopes for change on the Israeli political scene. Prime Minister Rabin was the man who ordered the breaking of Palestinian bones to crush the intifadah when he was defense minister under Yitzhak Shamir. He was also behind the proposal for limited self-government for Palestinians, but only for the people, not for their land. It became known as the Shamir-Rabin plan.

It is true that Rabin's government has frozen new building in the West Bank and Gaza, but this action is largely calculated to ease tensions with the United States and obtain $10 billion in loan guarantees needed by Israel to finance housing and jobs for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This move coincided with the visit of US Secretary of State James Baker III to Israel and four Arab states. Completion of the loan-guarantee deal is likely when Rabin visits the US next month.

While Rabin has stated his readiness to halt settlements in parts of the occupied territories, he defends settlements in areas that he says are important for Israel's security.

And Rabin has said little about the Golan Heights, so it is not known if his readiness to return land for peace applies to the Golan. Most experts believe that without progress on the Syrian front, no progress will be achieved in Lebanon, as the Lebanese are so linked to the Syrians.

THE Palestinian issue, however, presents the most serious problem. As mentioned, Rabin has in the past talked about limited autonomy for the people, not the land. In this regard, his position has similarities to that of his predecessor, Mr. Shamir. Even if an interim agreement is reached at this stage, serious problems will arise when the final status of the occupied land comes up for discussion.

Some observers think that Rabin may be inclined to hand over some parts of the West Bank to Jordan. That could portend new tensions between Jordanians and Palestinians.

Mr. Baker may succeed in giving the peace process a new push before he moves back to his old role as President Bush's campaign chief. Yet to expect substantial progress in the coming round of talks would be a mistake. No real progress is likely before the American presidential election.

Even after the election, the negotiating process will be tough. A new team could take over in Washington. And for his part, Rabin has said no to the return to the 1967 borders, no to a Palestinian state, and no to the elimination of all Jewish settlements.

Mr. Mubarak, meanwhile, is going to pay a visit to Israel. As Egypt's president he has an important role in the coming period, since Egypt is the only Arab country that has any experience dealing with the Israelis. Egypt can share this experience with the other Arab parties.

Even with such help, the peace process will require patience, and a knowledge of how the negotiating game is played. Every party must make concessions. The Arabs have repeatedly stated their readiness to accept a reasonable compromise. Concessions from Israel on the land-for-peace front will be met with Arab compromises on other fronts, such as water, trade, and other issues being dealt with in the peace process's multilateral track.

Progress, therefore, hinges on Israeli flexibility. It is still too early to predict just what the Israelis are ready to give up or to know the effect of the Israeli electoral results on the future of the Middle East.

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