News Analysis: Stunned by Netanyahu victory, Arabs debate future

JERUSALEM — Ali Jiddah spoke slowly in perfect Hebrew to ensure that every word of his message would be accurately recorded.

"If we do not get what we want, there will be another intifada," he said, standing at the Jaffa Gate, just inside Jerusalem's Old City.

"But not [like the one in] '87," he said. "It will be a different sort of intifada, much more violent, much more painful. Many mothers will cry."

Jiddah radiated the confidence of a terrorist who had nothing to lose.

A member of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who has served years in Israeli prisons for terrorist activities, Jiddah appeared ready once again for combat.

The election last week of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's next prime minister provided Jiddah and others who had consistently rejected the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords with ample reason to continue believing those accords have always been a sham.

"Most of the Israelis do not want peace," he said, ignoring the fact that most Israelis who voted for Likud were not against peace, but rather opposed the way Shimon Peres was handling peace negotiations.

While leaders of the Palestinian Authority took a more diplomatic tone, Jiddah's comments reflected the sour mood found among many Palestinians in the wake of Israel's elections: a general sense that political gains made over the past three years will erode with Netanyahu's rise to power. Those concerns were echoed by some Arab leaders who expressed fear that a Likud government will not continue to vigorously pursue peace in the region.

Like Jiddah, the Hamas fundamentalist movement took a strident and threatening tone.

"We told you so," said a pamphlet distributed by Hamas.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, warned that if Netanyahu halts the peace process, "this will end in a new wave of violence not only by Hamas, but by every Palestinian, including the people who support the peace process."

But some Palestinians remained optimistic.

"Bibi will speak to Arafat," said Khalil Bassa, 22, a vendor at a small souvenir shop near Gethsemane in eastern Jerusalem, using Netanyahu's nickname. "All his anti-Arab comments were merely an election facade.

"They will talk, because America will tell them to. America is Israel's mother, Israel's father — and grandmother, too."

But the Arab media remained skeptical during the weekend, citing the huge issues at stake: the final-status negotiations, which will address the future of Jerusalem; Palestinian refugees; final borders and Jewish settlements; the fate of Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in eastern Jerusalem that the Likud has vowed to shut down; and the issue of most immediate concern, the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron.

In the wider Arab world, there were clear concerns about the prospects for peace with a Netanyahu government. The most optimistic comments came from Jordan's King Hussein, who this week told the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, "There is no reason to see Netanyahu's election as a move against peace. The peace process has its own dynamics, and it is irreversible."

Hussein, who would prefer a limited Palestinian autonomy rather than an independent Palestinian state on his border, was reportedly happy about the results.

Other Arab leaders were less sanguine. After meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for more than three hours Monday, Syrian President Hafez Assad said at a joint news conference, "Initially, we have no feeling that events are going in a positive direction.

"We have to stay awake so that we don't drop our guard and get taken for fools," said Assad, whose own commitment to making peace with Israel has been questioned by many observers. Assad also said a quick resumption of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, suspended in March, was "not on the agenda."

Mubarak said Netanyahu's victory speech "did not inspire optimism."

But he was more moderate in his assessment, saying, "We have to wait and see the position of the Israeli government after it is formed."

Political observers believe Egypt is hoping to use Israel's change of government and the potential threat to the peace process as tools to rally support throughout the Arab world.

Adopting the posture of a spokesman for the entire region, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa this week reiterated the Egyptian position that without a Palestinian state, there would be no peace in the Middle East. Arafat initially issued a terse reaction to Israel's change of government.

"We are respecting the democratic choice of the Israeli people," he said Sunday, evincing hopes that "the final negotiations will lead to an independent Palestinian state."

But speaking at Oxford University on Monday, he demanded that the prime minister-elect stick to the accords. He specifically called on Netanyahu to abide by the agreement to redeploy troops in Hebron, the last of seven Palestinian cities still under Israeli control.

Arafat, who was reportedly shocked by Netanyahu's victory, convened the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee Friday of last week in the Gaza Strip for a seven-hour strategy session.

During the past few years, with the peace process, Arafat and outgoing Prime Minister Shimon Peres had become dependent on each other. Now with Peres' defeat, Arafat finds himself at least temporarily in the position of a political orphan.

But two days after the May 29 election, Netanyahu made an initial effort to reach out to Arafat. He authorized Dore Gold, an analyst at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies who is serving as an adviser to the prime minister-elect, to contact Arafat's second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu-Mazen, and assure the Palestinian Authority that contacts would be opened once the new government is formed.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, Netanyahu phoned the Omani foreign minister and stressed the importance of deepening Israeli-Omani relations, a Netanyahu spokesman said.

Palestinian affairs analyst Danny Rubinstein wrote in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that Netanyahu would have to depend on Arafat as much as Peres did.

Rubinstein wrote that if Israel fails to fulfill its commitment to redeploy its forces in Hebron, if it closes down Orient House and if it does not release security prisoners, Arafat could counterattack on a number of fronts.

Arafat could stop all anti-terror cooperation with Israel, Rubinstein wrote, adding that Arafat could also give a green light to the resumption of the intifada and work toward the worsening of relations between Israel and the wider Arab world.

Netanyahu "must be a full partner of Arafat, even if he or his friends do not like it," Rubinstein noted.

"The alternative is a violent struggle, and perhaps war, which will return full Israeli government in Gaza and the West Bank, which means an end to the peace process."