by N. Janardhan
(IPS) DUBAI --
Middle East peace process is at its "lowest ebb" in a decade following the sudden collapse of Israel's national unity government last week and the formation of a right-wing cabinet on Wednesday, Arab analysts say.
Worse, Arab governments see little light at the end of the tunnel given that opinion polls predict a victory for the rightists in Israel's elections in January 2003.
The swearing in of Benjamin Netanyahu as caretaker foreign minister and Shaul Mofaz as defense minister has made Arabs wary.
Netanyahu, who as prime minister signed the 1998 Wye River peace accord with the Palestinians that gave them control of West Bank, has veered sharply to the right since losing elections in 1999 to Ehud Barak, the predecessor of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Like Netanyahu, Mofaz -- who presided over the military invasion of the West Bank earlier this year -- favors expelling Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
Some of the most critical reactions to the prospects of an even more right-wing Israeli government came from Egypt and Jordan -- two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel.
"All indications are that the next coalition led by Sharon will be the most extreme and aggressive in the history of the Hebrew state," Egypt's 'Al Ahram' newspaper said. "The new Israeli government will represent a danger for peace and stability, not only in the Palestinian territories, but in the entire region."
In an interview with the London Times newspaper on Tuesday, Sharon said that the United States must attack Iran the "day after it finishes with Iraq".
The period leading up to the Israeli elections and the first few months thereafter will be the toughest for the Palestinians, says Kuwaiti independent political analyst Ali Jaber Al Sabah.
Sharon will try to be even more right-wing than Netanyahu, forcing him to take extremely radical measures such as building more settlements, cracking down on the two-year-old Palestinian 'intifadah' or uprising and attempting to reoccupy Gaza like in the case of the West Bank now, Ali Jaber added.
Already, Jordanian newspapers warned, the "hysteria" of right-wing extremism was sweeping the Jewish state.
"Partisans of 'transfer' and 'Greater Israel' have the upper hand in Israeli decision-making now," the 'Al Dustour' Arabic daily said. It was referring to the dream by Sharon's Likud party of an Eretz (Greater) Israel, in which the Jewish state would stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, including the entire West Bank.
Sharon has been wooing ultra-nationalist and religious parties to form a right-wing coalition after the center-left Labor party walked out of his 20-month-old government this week, in a bitter row over subsidies for Jewish settlers.
"This government is perhaps the worst ever to govern Israel until now, and all those who do not want the peace process and want to pursue the aggression and occupation are part of it," Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said on Al Jazeera television, the Qatar-based station.
The developments in Israel came as a shock to the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, because the U.S. "road map" for peace in the Middle East had just appeared to pick up steam again.
The blueprint, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005, was put together by the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States.
Likewise, after months of intra-Palestinian squabbles over political reforms and cabinet formation, Arafat had just emerged on top Tuesday when the Palestinian Legislative Council approved the new list of ministers to oversee affairs until elections next year.
Netanyahu, who is expected to challenge Sharon for leadership of Likud, told reporters that he regretted Israel had not already expelled Arafat, adding that the U.S. strike on Iraq would provide an ideal cover to oust him.
According to the official Palestinian WAFA news agency, Arafat retorted: "No one can expel me from my homeland. They must remember that I am President Arafat."
Others fear that the political shift in Israel could prod the country into more aggressive behavior elsewhere in the region.
"There is also the fear of Israel retaliating against Lebanon, from where its troops withdrew in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation and with which it is now locked in dispute over the Wazzani river water," Ali Jaber said.
In this kind of environment, "the only winners will be the extremists who will win their mandate on the Arab blood they spill," said Saudi Arabia's 'Al Madina' daily.
But an influential commentator in Egypt saw hope. "Arabs should campaign for peace-loving leaders in Israel," said Samir Ragab in the 'Egyptian Gazette', adding: "The collective (Arab) interest should make the best use of the political changes in Israel."
Ali Jaber, the political analyst, agreed: "The most practical way out is for the Palestinians to reject suicide bombings and for Israel's left to mobilize against Sharon if there is to be hope for peace after elections."
But so far, opinion polls are giving a large lead in the elections to Likud. Said Beirut's 'Al Anwar' newspaper: "The Israeli political map has changed tremendously. The left is weak, the center has collapsed, and the only serious challenge is between the right, far-right and extreme far-right."
November 8 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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