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Local Activists Voice Cautious Optimism : Reaction: Arabs, Jews in O.C. say much remains to be done. A rabbi sees disaster for Israel.


Stunned by the dizzying pace of events in the Middle East and scarred by agonizing memories of decades of hostilities between the PLO and Israel, Orange County-area Arab and Jewish activists are reacting with cautious optimism to the historic agreement by the two sides to officially recognize each other.

"For myself, I'd have to say I'm cautiously elated," said Rabbi Steven Schatz, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. "There are some dangers in this that everyone recognizes. But finally, after 50 years of disputes, the fact that the parties are negotiating . . . strikes me as very, very exciting."

Echoed George Dibs, an executive committee member with the Arab American Republican Club of Orange County: "We're all praying there will be step-by-step progress that will result in peace and justice for everybody in that area. . . . If this is a baseball game, this is the first inning and there's been an agreement to play ball. But we have to finish the game."

As momentum builds toward the likely signing Monday of an agreement on limited Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, few public statements have been issued and no major rallies have been held in Southern California--a region with a significant Arab presence and a Jewish population larger than that of either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

For many Jewish leaders concerned about Israel's military security and bearing painful memories of terrorist acts, it is a matter of waiting for additional details about the peace process and its potential long-term impact. They hope to receive specific answers, they say, during a scheduled appearance by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at a Westwood synagogue Sept. 19.

"The general tenor of the Jewish community is hopefully to cool it, to learn more about the ingredients of the peace process but at the same time to lift up the stature of the state of Israel and to hopefully provide unity during very tenuous negotiations," said Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen of Los Angeles, regional president-elect of the American Zionist Movement.

But some in the Jewish community were quick to condemn the agreement.

"I think it's a disaster," declared Rabbi David Eliezrie, who is the vice president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County.

"I think this is a tragic day in the history of the Jewish people when we have capitulated to the demands of terrorists who have clearly stated their intention to destroy the state of Israel," said Eliezrie, who is also director of North County Chabad Center, an orthodox congregation in Yorba Linda.

After all the acts of terrorism and violence tied to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Eliezrie warned, "to think that he has suddenly changed his stripes is an absurdity. . . . That man I should trust with the future of the Jewish people?"

Even among those generally supportive of the agreement's aims, there was skepticism.

"This is a very positive development," said Leslie Rabine of Santa Ana, director of the women's studies program at UC Irvine and a member of the Cousins Club of Orange County, a multicultural group that seeks to promote peace in the Middle East.

"But this agreement is not going to be bring about paradise, even if it's signed. There are still a lot of old hatreds that have to be worked out," she said.

Arab activists, angered by the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights since 1967, say their muted public response is due in large part to their concerns that even such a momentous act as mutual recognition is but a single step toward the ultimate Palestinian goal of self-determination.

"There are people who say this is not near enough--that they were offered a piece of bone with no meat on it whatsoever," said Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

Issam Nashashibi, 42, a Newport Beach businessman who grew up in East Jerusalem and is now a member of the National Assn. of Arab-Americans, said the agreement holds the prospect of hope for all Palestinians.

"As every Americans knows, every person has the right to life, liberty and self-determination, and that is the ultimate justice for the Palestinian people," he said. "I would like to have the option of returning home and living in dignity as a citizen, as a full citizen with full rights."

Those on both sides of the fence are quick to acknowledge that public posturing halfway across the globe could also appear presumptuous or arrogant.

"People have opinions, but it's a 'Who am I?' attitude right now," explained Jack Salem, a past co-chair of the Jewish Federation Council's committee on the Middle East. "Those in (the Middle East are the ones) living and dying by their decisions."

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