Horror of Netanyahu heals Arab divisions

Peace at the crossroads: Arab League to meet for first time since Gulf war as region is plunged into flux

The last time the Arab League held a summit meeting, the Iraqi delegate hurled his food at his Kuwaiti counterpart who promptly fainted and had to be carried from the room. That was just after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, six years ago. The League has not met since.

But, prompted by Binyamin Netanyahu's victory in the election in Israel, Arab leaders, with the exception of Iraq, have decided to come together again. Meeting in Damascus at the weekend, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have called for a summit in Cairo in two weeks time.

The crisis for the Arab states is not on the scale of the invasion of Kuwait, but there is a growing fear that the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians are about to fall apart. "Any retraction by Israel on the basis of the peace process ... represents a real threat of returning the region to the cycle of tension and violence," reads the final statement from Damascus.

Relatives of the 101 Lebanese killed by Israeli shells at Qana in April, or the families of the 59 people killed by Palestinian suicide-bombers in Israel in February and March, might be surprised to learn the cycle of violence ever went away. But in Israel and the Arab world there is now a widespread belief that the Oslo accords will unravel under Mr Netanyahu.

The course of events will depend in part on Mr Netanyahu's real political character. Is he an arch-manipulator, or a committed ideologue? His government's policy guidelines, as leaked to the press, suggest that he will say no to compromise on Jerusalem, no to a Palestinian state and no to restraint on the expansion of Israeli settlements.

But even if he wanted to, can Mr Netanyahu compromise? His promises on Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood and settlements were specific in the election. He is flanked by the religious right and friends of the settlers, such as General Ariel Sharon. To appease the US they might compromise over withdrawal from Hebron, but not over matters of principle.

The problem for Mr Netanyahu is simple: He cannot deliver to voters because he has made contradictory promises. He says he will provide better security for Israelis but make no concessions to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. But the two objectives are linked. Danny Rubinstein in the daily Haaretz writes that Mr Arafat "does not have to be Israel's loyal cop, the hunter of Hamas, as he has been in recent months." He could let Hamas and Islamic militants back onto the streets of Gaza, which will mean more suicide attacks on Israel.

With no concessions from Israel, Mr Arafat will probably have no choice but to do just that. Palestinian public opinion will not accept a clampdown on Islamic militants if Israel reneges on the next stage of Oslo. And if more bombs do go off, Mr Netanyahu has promised to send the army in hot pursuit into autonomous Palestinian enclaves. Even if such pursuits were covert operations rather than invasions, the 30,000 police and troops loyal to Mr Arafat would fight and there would be retaliatory bombings in Israel.

Despite his election victory, Mr Netanyahu's fate is linked to that of Mr Arafat. In his one television debate with Shimon Peres, his defeated rival, he accused him of leaving "the security of our children in the hands of Arafat." There was some truth in this. Mr Peres could scarcely reply that co-operation with the Palestinian Authority was the only realistic way to stop suicide bombers who require little equipment, or training.

Some Palestinians and Israelis argue there are alternative scenarios. In one view, Mr Arafat will become a Palestinian chief Buthelezi, enforcing Israeli rule in a Palestinian Bantustan. But Mr Arafat in the past never allowed himself to become somebody else's catspaw. It is not likely that he would live very long if he tried.

There is also an optimistic view that Mr Netanyahu will prove to be Israel's General de Gaulle, using his right-wing credentials to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians, just as the French leader did in Algeria. But there is little sign of it. Indeed, the parallel is ominous, as the one Israeli politician resembling General de Gaulle was Yitzhak Rabin, the former chief-of-staff, murdered in November precisely because as prime minister he made concessions to secure peace.

tTel Aviv - Two people were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting late last night in central Israel, Israeli police said, AP reports. A police spokesman said two mortally wounded people were found in a car outside the entrance to the village of Zaharia, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An ambulance service reported a baby girl was found unharmed in the car. A police official said the attack was "probably a terrorist attack".

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