Who-Blinks-First Drama in Mideast

Series of violent acts prompts enemies to consider formulas for peace

A WAR of words as well as weapons has opened between Israel and radical Palestinians trying to derail the peace process.

Following a month of violence, the Israeli Cabinet is engaged in an internal debate on opening dialogue with the radical Islamic Palestinian group Hamas, provided the movement abandons the use of violence for political aims.

And Hamas, which analysts say cannot afford an all-out confrontation with either Israel or the new Palestinian Authority (PA), is seeking talks with Israel.

The question is, which side will blink first?

``There is an ongoing debate'' in the government, says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. ``The idea is that if Hamas agrees to take part in the elections, it will give legitimacy to the peace process and agreements,'' including the Israeli-Palestinian accord that Hamas rejects.

``My call for dialogue is still standing,'' says Sheikh Jamil Hamami, an Islamic clergyman believed to be close to Hamas. ``In fact it has gained more urgency now. Dialogue is the only way to stop this bloodshed.''

Standing between Israel and Hamas is Yasser Arafat, the PA chairman, who is said to want to win concessions from Hamas before Israel agrees to dialogue with the movement. Direct Israeli-Hamas contact could further erode Mr. Arafat's position as the major spokesman for the Palestinian people, analysts say.

``I think both Arafat and Hamas need to reach a compromise accommodation arrangement,'' says Sari Nussiebeh, a Palestinian leader.

Driving momentum for reconciliation among the three sides is escalating violence. Last month, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier who was later killed in an Israeli rescue attempt. Hamas then organized a bus-bomb attack that killed 23 people in Tel Aviv. And last week, a car bomb killed Hani Abed, leader of the opposition group Jihad, in an attack that analysts say had the markings of Israeli involvement.

Despite Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's tough stand against dialogue with Hamas, at least three senior Israeli officials, including hard-line Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur, have called for negotiations with the movement provided Hamas agrees to take part in elections for a Palestinian autonomy council, mandated under the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are deeply suspicious that Israeli proposals for a dialogue are no more than a smokescreen to cover plans to hunt down prominent Islamic leaders.

Political analysts believe that, following Hani's death, fear of Israeli assassination attempts against Islamic activists is one reason that is prompting Hamas leaders to consider accommodating Israel and the PA.

Arafat, according to Palestinian sources, has agreed to provide protection to the Islamists, partly to appease a Palestinian public increasingly dismayed by the lack of improvement in living conditions, and also in hopes that the PA could co-opt Hamas.

``We view every request by Hamas from the Authority as an indication of a de facto recognition of the Palestinian Authority, which was set up on the basis of the very peace agreements that Hamas rejects,'' says a senior Palestinian security official.

Hamas has not totally dropped its opposition to the PA, but seems to be pursuing a two-pronged policy. On the formal level, Hamas leaders have adopted a conciliatory tone, referring to the PA as ``our brothers.'' On the street, however, Hamas has continued to mobilize against the PA.

There are indications that the pragmatic wing within the movement is pushing for a conciliatory position. According to various sources, Hamas is about to make a decision on abandoning violence. But it is not clear if the political leadership has total control over military wing.

And Hamas has reached an understanding with the PA to stop launching military attacks from and within the new autonomous zones.

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