News Analysis: Netanyahu says Arabs ganging up on him

JERUSALEM — Criticizing Arab states for "ganging up on Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week evoked memories of a period that many thought was safely in the Jewish state's past.

The Arab boycott of Israel, the Palestinian uprising — these were events of years ago, before the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands one sunny September afternoon on the White House lawn.

But this week, the old specters were back.

Arab League foreign ministers convened in Cairo and called for a resumption of the boycott. And Arab nations requested an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Netanyahu was not impressed.

"Israel has known periods of Israel-bashing more than once, and we've been able to overcome it," he said Monday.

"They are testing our steadfastness," he added, vowing that Israel would not bow to Arab pressure.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, where confrontations between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops entered their second week, it looked more and more like a resumption of the 1987-1993 intifada.

The Arabs' actions came in response to the start of construction March 18 on the new Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in eastern Jerusalem, Arab critics say.

Two weeks after Israel sent in the bulldozers, the Jewish state appeared to stand alone, as it had years before, in a confrontation with the entire Arab world.

Monday, after a two-day session in Cairo, the Arab League adopted a resolution calling on its 22 members to resume the Arab boycott of Israel.

In recent years, several Arab states have eased the boycott, but in the eyes of the Arab foreign ministers, Har Homa necessitated a reconsideration.

The resolution also called on Arab states to stop all normalization of ties with Israel, to close Israeli offices and missions in their countries, and to suspend the multilateral talks that deal with regional issues such as water, the environment and security.

Whether the league's recommendations, which will be presented to each of the ministers' governments, will be implemented remains to be seen.

The resolution was not expected to affect Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, though each may decide to reduce contacts with Israel.

But it may spur action by five Arab League members — Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar — all of which established low-level economic ties with Israel in recognition of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Persian Gulf states of Oman and Qatar have stated their intention to freeze relations with Israel, but whether they will take concrete steps remains uncertain — particularly because they had originally established commercial ties with Israel as a matter of economic self-interest.

But some observers, such as Professor Yossi Kostiner of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center, believe that concrete actions will ensue.

"I do not believe the recommendations are merely" a technicality, Kostiner said. "They will take action because they feel compelled to do so, and not because they want to.

"The real interests of countries like Oman and Qatar lie in the Gulf and not in the Palestinian context. But precisely for that reason, if Saudi Arabia and Iran push them further to stay away from Israel, they may be unable to refrain from doing so."

Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin said the Arab League recommendations would hurt the peace process even if they are not implemented.

They "will only create further distrust within the Israeli public toward the peace process," Beilin said.

In the wake of the Arab League meeting, Omar Abdul-Monem Rifai, Jordan's ambassador to Israel, seemed almost embarrassed as he appeared this week at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Strategic Studies Center.

He said Jordan was the only Arab country that was maintaining the normalization process with Israel. "I hope the government of Israel appreciates that," he added.

But even Jordan may have to bow to pressure from other Arab states if Israeli-Palestinian confrontations worsen.

Jordan's King Hussein met Tuesday in Washington with President Clinton to seek ways to restore confidence on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Netanyahu is scheduled to see Clinton early next week as well.

But reviving the peace process appeared more difficult than ever this week as violence spread throughout the major Palestinian population centers of the West Bank and Gaza.

And on a daily basis, Palestinians showered Israeli troops with a hail of stones, eliciting images of the intifada.

In the days after the start of construction at Har Homa, the initial Palestinian demonstrations were confined to the building site and were largely peaceful.

But by this week, Israeli troops were battling Palestinian crowds in Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah.

Israeli-Palestinian relations plunged deeper into crisis Tuesday, when the violence escalated even further and the two sides traded angry accusations.

In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinians in Palestinian police uniforms blew themselves up in what the Israeli army said were suicide bombers targeting Jewish school buses. No Israelis were injured in the blasts.

Palestinian officials acknowledged that one of the men had detonated the explosives, but they charged that the other man was killed by a bomb or grenade thrown by Israeli soldiers.

In the first blast, a man with explosives strapped to his body blew himself up at the entrance to the Netzarim settlement. Settler leaders said a school bus preparing to leave Netzarim was running behind schedule and managed to escape the blast.

Shortly afterward, near the Kfar Darom settlement in Gaza, a Palestinian dressed in a police uniform was killed by an explosion on the main road. Seven passengers in a passing Palestinian taxi were wounded.

The secretary general of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, quoted eyewitness accounts that the man was killed by a bomb or grenade thrown at him from an Israeli jeep.

Hamas issued a statement in Gaza accusing Israel of ordering the blasts to create a rift in relations between the Islamic fundamentalist group and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel rejected the claims, saying that both incidents involved suicide bombers.

Wednesday, a firebomb struck an Israeli army bus outside the Jelazoun refugee camp in the West Bank, injuring 13 soldiers.

Paramedics told the Associated Press that soldiers saw a firebomb hit the right front side of the bus, forcing the driver to lose control. The bus rolled down a slope toward the camp.

No group initally claimed responsibility, and Palestinian Police detained 30 people, most followers of the radical Islamic Jihad. The police released 13 after questioning.

The incidents took place less than two weeks after a suicide bomber, identified as a Hamas operative, detonated an explosion at a Tel Aviv cafe, killing three Israelis and wounding dozens of others, the first such attack in Israel in more than a year.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the numbers of Palestinians killed or wounded in confrontations with soldiers mounted.

In Nablus, a Palestinian police officer who was not in uniform was killed and four other Palestinians were wounded Tuesday when Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters.

In Hebron, a Palestinian youth was shot dead after soldiers spotted several Arabs involved in a theft, the army said.

Clinton vowed Tuesday to do what he could to help salvage the peace process. But he knew the dimensions of the task ahead.

"We've got to keep the lid on things over there," he said, adding, "It's not going to be easy."