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Equation for Mideast Peace Changes Once Again

Arafat, Netanyahu endure setbacks, while Hamas leader offers a qualified truce Oct. 7.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1997



AMMAN, JORDAN

After his release from an Israeli jail, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, appears to have extended an olive branch to his sworn enemy by offering a cease-fire.

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His proposal appears to take advantage of a resurgence of popularity for his Islamic Palestinian movement.

But Sheikh Yassin heavily qualified his Oct. 7 statement by saying that he would declare a truce only if Israel withdrew completely from the West Bank and Gaza and removed all Jewish settlements.

His declarations follow recent shifts in the delicate Mideast balance of power. These stem from Israel's failed assassination attempt in Jordan on the life of a another leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic group responsible for recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem.

Hamas enjoyed its most public "triumph" in years on Oct. 6, with the tumultuous welcome in Gaza for Yassin. He was released from prison as part of a deal with Jordan to hand over two agents of Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, involved in the attack.

A day after his Gaza arrival, Yassin added that Islam rules out a "permanent reconciliation," and other Hamas leaders suggested that any cease-fire would only be a step toward "liberating" all territory, including Israel proper. But even as the sheikh toyed with such conditions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that Israel would "continue its fight against terrorism, and not be deterred," in pursuing this "just aim everywhere."

"This [statement] is going to put more focus on the Palestinian Authority, [President Yasser] Arafat, and Hamas, that if there is a further round of terrorism, Israel will react," says Gerald Steinberg, a military expert with the BESA center at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"Next time Israel won't quietly send secret agents with poison darts," he says. "It will be a much more visible, military response."

Since the Israeli assassination attempt on Jordanian soil, horse trading between the two countries has been carried out in time-honored Mideast fashion: negative, "illegal," and unsavory acts are mutually cancelled out.

Israel won the freedom of its two arrested Mossad agents and three other Mossad fugitives holed up in the Israeli Embassy in Amman, but the price was high. Sheikh Yassin's release was the first Israeli gift to Jordan's King Hussein, who negotiated the deal, then some 20 Jordanians held in Israeli jails were freed.

They will be followed by up to 50 Palestinian detainees, though Israeli Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon said that those let go will "not be members of Hamas and do not have Israeli blood on their hands."

Mr. Netanyahu's tough response - despite Mossad's bungling, which he said "damaged" close relations with Israel's only close Arab friend, Jordan - is likely to further polarize Mideast actors engaged in the flagging peace process.

American envoy Dennis Ross arrived in the region Oct. 6 to relaunch peace talks, but his mission was overshadowed by the spy-vs.-spy scandal that has mesmerized the region.

Among the primary adjustments to the Mideast line-up:

*The failed Sept. 24 assassination attempt on Khaled Meshal, the Hamas politburo chief, has been a political windfall for Hamas, which rejects the peace process and advocates the violent erasure of Israel's existence.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out to greet the ailing sheikh in the Gaza Strip. His return now poses a challenge to Mr. Arafat's popularity.