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NEWS ANALYSIS Arab world weighs its options as Israel campaign season unfolds

JERUSALEM, Jan. 10 (JTA) — As Israel enters an election season, the Arab world is watching closely, carefully weighing its options. If Arab leaders could take part in the Israeli election campaign, it is no secret that they would work hard against the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, in June 1996 — days after Netanyahu assumed office — Egypt hosted the first Arab League summit in six years. The summit had a single goal: to develop a united front against the Netanyahu government’s approach to the peace process. Arab leaders now feel that their initial wariness about Netanyahu’s policies has been amply borne out by events. They point to a peace process with the Palestinians that has been marked by long periods of stalemate. And now, after the initial euphoria surrounding the signing of the Wye accord last October, stalemate has again set in. The Arab League is expected to hold a meeting in Cairo at the end of the month, when they are expected to discuss the Israeli elections and another burning issue: how to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In recent days, Saddam has repeatedly called for the popular overthrow of those Arab governments that support American foreign policy in the region. His comments were specifically directed at Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This week, Saudi officials responded by calling for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. While political analysts view Saddam’s remarks as a sign of weakness, his calls are nonetheless viewed warily by Arab leaders. And Israel’s neighbors are equally wary about how to proceed during the Israeli election campaign. For Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, caution is the prevailing sentiment. In a recent meeting with Yasser Arafat, Mubarak urged the Palestinian Authority chairman to postpone a unilateral declaration of statehood until after the Israeli elections. For Mubarak, and most other observers of the Israeli political scene, such a declaration would only play into Netanyahu’s hands. There is no love lost between the Israeli and Egyptian leaders: Their meetings have been tense at best, and Mubarak has repeatedly charged Netanyahu with failing to live up to promises he made during their sessions together. This week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa was visiting Israel to participate — along with a host of foreign dignitaries — in a conference hosted by the Peres Center for Peace. During his stay in Tel Aviv, Moussa got the chance to obtain a first-hand glimpse of the Israeli campaign season. His visit also gave Israeli political players the opportunity to get his assessment of Arab sentiments. Meanwhile, Arafat appears to be heeding Mubarak’s advice. In recent speeches, the Palestinian leader has stopped reiterating his intention to declare statehood on May 4, the end of the interim period in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He is also reported to have decided not to make the declaration until after the May 17 Israeli elections. This decision was not taken lightly by Arafat, who is facing strong internal opposition from moderate elements in the self-rule government as well as from militant fundamentalists. Palestinian moderates are angry at what they view as Israel’s suspension of the Wye agreement. But presumably Arafat can get them to see the logic in Mubarak’s advice. The situation is markedly different with Hamas and the other rejectionist groups. Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin recently summed up the militant viewpoint when he declared that there was no difference among the various Israeli candidates for prime minister. As far as he is concerned, Israel under any leader remains an enemy in need of destruction. Whether this stance will translate into Hamas terror attacks during Israel’s campaign season — a scenario that would play into the hands of the Israeli right — is a matter of no small concern for Arafat, who needs to find ways to keep the fundamentalists at bay. Walking a political tightrope, Arafat recently released Yassin from house arrest as part of a conciliatory gesture toward the militants. But at the same time, he instructed his security apparatus to work with Israel to prevent terrorist attacks. As part of this effort, Palestinian security agents recently increased the number of arrests among Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip. Another leader with a sizable number of Palestinians living under his government, Jordan’s King Hussein, can presumably be counted among those who would like to see a new Israeli premier this spring. Long considered Israel’s closest friend, Hussein was outraged when Israeli agents tried to assassinate a Hamas official in the Jordanian capital in October 1997. In what was certainly the nadir of recent Israeli-Jordanian relations, Hussein was barely on speaking terms with Netanyahu in the wake of that affair. Matters improved somewhat when Hussein, ailing with cancer, appeared at the Wye negotiations and the White House signing of that accord. Just the same, Hussein can be counted among those seeking a moderating role in Israeli-Palestinian relations as part of a broader strategy to unseat Netanyahu. Among Israel’s neighbors, there is one wild card as the election season heats up: Syria. Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose motives are often inscrutable, may play one of two strategies during Israel’s election campaign. In the first, he may believe that he can extract concessions from Netanyahu, who may be eager to score points among Israeli moderates by restarting Israeli- Syrian negotiations. Indeed, Netanyahu recently hinted that these talks, which were broken off nearly three years ago, may resume “sooner than many might expect.” Such talks could help Netanyahu divert attention from the stalemated Palestinian track. But, according to the reasoning of the second strategy, Assad may feel that he has more to gain from waiting and perhaps negotiating with a new, more moderate Israeli leader. If this is ultimately the tactic he decides upon, Assad can likely be counted on to keep hostilities simmering in southern Lebanon. A go-ahead from Assad to Hezbollah, Syria’s proxy in the decade-long battle with Israel on the Lebanese front, would indicate that the Syrian president has given up on ever achieving any concessions from Netanyahu. Continued fighting in southern Lebanon could play to any candidate in Israel’s election, but it would deny Netanyahu the chance to claim progress on the Syrian track. While other Arab leaders view moderation as the way to unseat the Israeli incumbent, for Assad the opposite strategy would best achieve the same goal.