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Rabin assassination arouses new-found Arab sympathy Both sides now see how similar they are

PARIS — PARIS -- A month before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the presidents of American Jewish organizations were stunned when Prince Saud al-Faisal greeted them in New York with the traditional Hebrew high holy day wish, "G'mar hatima tova" -- May you be sealed in the book of life.

"People nearly fell off their chair," said Henry Siegman, a member of the group. The Saudi foreign minister's words, after all, were spoken by a son of the late King Faisal, the monarch whose antipathy for Israel was legendary.

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The shock was not in the phrase's good intention -- that was predictable at this gathering -- but in its expression of warm human feeling.

Even after years of movement toward coexistence, that kindness went against all the stereotypes about each other's coldness and unwillingness to reach out -- stereotypes that, on both sides, have been part of the emotional ice in Israeli-Arab contacts.

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But now, in the month since a militant Jewish fundamentalist gunned down Mr. Rabin at a peace rally, recognition from the Arab side that Israelis, too, are human and vulnerable seems suddenly no longer so shocking.

An increasingly vocal number of influential Arabs are beginning to say that their societies have more in common with Israel's than they had thought.

The key revelation has been that many Israelis, like many Arabs, look outward from the mainstream with fear at their own extremists.

The sight of King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt standing next to other leading Arab figures in Jerusalem to eulogize Mr. Rabin was, of course, a critical element in this change.

Another was the image of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chief, visiting with the newly widowed Leah Rabin.

These were sights beamed by Arab television to millions, from Morocco to the remotest towns of the Persian Gulf.

In the torrent of coverage and analyses that followed, leading Arab commentators in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (but not in the more intransigent Syria, Libya and Iraq) took a fresh look at Israelis and their society.

They wrote and spoke of Israelis not as Western implants in the heart of the Arab world, but as part of a growing community that seeks peace and, like Arabs, as people with extremists in their midst.

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"Maybe this is the end of stereotypes of Arabs and Jews," wrote Hazem Sagieh, a Lebanese columnist, a few days after the assassination. "Maybe this is the incentive to create the counter-party, 'the Peace Party' of Arabs and Israelis."

Years ago, Mr. Sagieh would have been ostracized for saying this much. But now his comments appeared to echo what was being said in the coffee shops of Cairo and Beirut.

For the Arab world is a place where an overwhelming majority of people have been weaned on a view of Jews as a monolithic community in matters of war and peace.

So the simple fact that a Jewish religious fanatic could kill an Israeli war hero and prime minister for seeking peace suddenly opened new vistas.

And for many Arab intellectuals, this has become a good reason to reach out to those on the Israeli side who may indeed want to make peace.

"It is possible to talk of Rabin the general and Rabin the fighter," Khairallah Khairallah, the foreign editor of the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat, wrote four days after the killing. "But it is not possible to ignore Rabin the politician and the great coup he participated in bringing about by recognizing the Palestinians as a people and acknowledging their national ambitions."

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To be sure, part of the Arab reaction was more gloating, a sort of "Welcome to the club," or "See, you're not so different after all." But even this implies common ground.


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