CAIRO — A cartoon in a leading Arab newspaper Wednesday showed an Israeli voter dropping a ballot marked with the name of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into a box. An onlooker, peering to see how the man had voted, quickly gave up. "Shamir or Rabin," he sighed, "does it make a difference?"
Arabs on Wednesday publicly greeted the Labor Party victory in Israel's elections as the beginning of a new era of peace in the Middle East, but privately they worried that a government under Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin would mean the same hard-line policies masked under a kinder, gentler face.
The Arab camp itself is increasingly in disarray, with Palestinian representatives from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip under attack for their links to the Palestine Liberation Organization and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat himself facing unprecedented challenges to his leadership of the guerrilla group turned government-in-exile.
"It is clear that the choice of the Israeli people is against war and terrorism which Shamir practiced against our women, children and people in Palestine and south Lebanon," Arafat said on arriving in Cairo for several days of talks with Egyptian officials on the implications of the Israeli elections.
But Arafat and other Arab leaders warned that it was a Labor Party government that was in power when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
"Nothing in the history of the two parties, Likud and Labor, encourages one to think that a win by either party could positively affect peace efforts," the Arab League's assistant secretary general, Adnan Omran, glumly told reporters in Cairo.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, the man who triumphantly waved a "wanted" picture of Shamir as a terrorist at the opening round of peace talks in Madrid last fall, declared that "without any doubt, no one will regret the departure of Mr. Shamir, whose politics had placed the peace process at an impasse."
But he said Syria will wait to see what course Rabin would follow before deciding whether the election returns would herald a breakthrough in the peace process. "We judge countries according to the politics they follow, and as a result we can't judge in advance the course Mr. Rabin will follow concerning the peace process," he told Damascus Radio.
An official of Syria's ruling Baath Party, interviewed by telephone from Damascus, said the Syrians are hopeful that a Labor-led government in Israel will show movement on the issue of withdrawing from the formerly Syrian Golan Heights.
"Shamir was an obstacle, and one is hopeful now that the obstacle is out of the way," the official said. "But it remains to be seen about Rabin's government: How strong is it, can it go through with the American initiative, with the hopes of the Madrid conference?
"It's clear that the Israeli electorate made a choice between somebody who's saying 'no' all the time and somebody who was giving some hope. So we are crossing our fingers here to see if there's any real hope, or is it just wishing?"
Egypt's official press had been largely silent on the elections in the days leading up to the balloting, apparently an attempt not to give a boost to Shamir's conservative Likud Party by praising its opponents.
But in the wake of the election returns, the floodgates were hauled up and Cairo dailies today displayed gleeful front-page headlines about the Labor victory and, as the official Al Akhbar newspaper put it, "The Fall of the Abominable Shamir." Leading columnist Mustafa Amin referred to Shamir as "a Frankenstein."
"Our happiness about the fall of Shamir is shared by the whole world," Al Akhbar proclaimed. "He was a gloomy, narrow-minded man whose face inspired anxiety and disgust."
Egyptian officials, more discreet but still cheerful, said they were encouraged by Rabin's pledge to move toward Palestinian self-rule and a halt to "political" settlements in the occupied territories.
"This will be quite a step forward if he's that eager on the issue of peace and if he's willing to show flexibility, more than Mr. Shamir did," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nagui Ghatrify said in an interview.
"What for us matters now is how much, to what extent, he's willing to respect the principle of peace for land, because in our point of view that is the core of the whole process. . . ."
Senior Palestinian leaders were closeted for talks in Cairo after several days of meetings in Amman, Jordan, which led to a new crisis in the question of representation for Palestinians in the next round of Mideast peace talks, to be held in Rome perhaps as early as next month.