Arab reaction to Netanyahu Cairo summit: Muted response allows Christopher time to broker accommodation.

June 25, 1996

THE 21 ARAB STATE leaders who met in Cairo over the weekend were remarkable in their unanimity and their quiet tone in responding to the new government of Israel. Some of these governments recognize Israel; most do not. Most have in some way approved the peace process; some have not. Past Arab summits were strident and demanding. That rhetoric was absent.

Nonetheless, what they delivered was an ultimatum, triggered by the democratic choice of the Israeli electorate. They said that any Israeli backtracking or procrastination in implementing commitments would "lead to a setback in the peace process, with all the dangers and repercussions that this implies, taking the region back to the cycle of tension . . ." More ominously, they warned, this "would force all the Arab states to reconsider the steps that have been taken toward Israel in the framework of the peace process."

This is gloomy stuff and gives Secretary of State Warren Christopher the task on his latest trip to head off such an eventuality. There is a bright side. In calling on Israel to adhere to the concept of land for peace, some of the 21 Arab leaders were endorsing that for the first time.

The government of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the Cairo communique, but without adding inflammatory rhetoric. It did impose discipline on its members. Foreign Minister David Levy, who had uttered compromise statements earlier, backed off them.

The Netanyahu government cannot be expected to act as if Shimon Peres and the Labor Party had won the election. Mr. Netanyahu has been clear that what Mr. Peres agreed to will not be reneged. He will not soon concede what Mr. Peres had not conceded, such as sovereign status for the Palestinian Authority or part of Jerusalem for its capital.

Clearly the peace process has been slowed down by the terrorism that provoked the Israeli electorate. Mr. Christopher's charge is to keep the peace process going, even at a snail's pace, to prevent an unraveling. There is no need to force both sides into negotiating in public. They should be persuaded, rather, not to be inflammatory and not to call the whole thing off in reaction to the other.

The best that can be achieved now is a frustrating slowness that would hold opportunities open. Meanwhile, Palestinians enjoy autonomy, Israel has more commercial and diplomatic access than ever and Arab states have the opportunity to address domestic progress. They should not want to give any of that up, and so far none has.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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