New Mideast Questions

It's enough to make Machiavelli blush. Israel's intelligence service, spurred on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attempts to assassinate a Hamas official in Jordan. The attempt fails, and in its aftermath Mr. Netanyahu is forced to take steps that strengthen Hamas, the radical Islamist group behind suicide bombings in Israel; weaken his putative peace partner, Yasser Arafat; and threaten his own political survival.

Jordan's King Hussein, characteristically, seems to be riding the crisis out with aplomb. He got Netanyahu to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader imprisoned by Israel since 1989. Additional Palestinian prisoners are reported to have been released in exchange for the Mossad intelligence agents held by the King. At the same time, Hussein has taken care not to sever his ties to Israel.

And as all this transpires, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are sitting down to renew bargaining after a half- year lapse. US mediator Dennis Ross is on hand, and the official agenda is such lower-level issues as guaranteed travel between the West Bank and Gaza. The bigger issues - Israel's demand to end terrorism, Palestinian demands to stop settlement expansion - will inevitably intervene. But the resumption of talks is in itself positive.

Now back to the Hamas assassination affair. Sheikh Yassin returns in triumph to his home in Gaza. Mr. Arafat will have to pay homage to him, as King Hussein already has. Arafat is doubtless under pressure to undo the moves he's recently taken to rein in Hamas. What does this mean for the peace process, since Yassin's organization has been an implacable enemy of that process? But the sheikh, since his release, has made some unmistakably moderate statements about coexistence with Israel, if Israel doesn't "gobble up" the Palestinians' rights. Some reports, denied by both Hamas and Israel, have the group angling for a role in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu faces a storm of criticism from his own press and public for the ill-advised operation in Jordan. It threatened relations with Israel's closest Arab partner in peacemaking. It is likely to help the very people (Hamas's leadership) it was intended to hurt. It followed other recent operational mishaps by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. Finally, Canada, whose passports the Israeli assassins forged, is outraged.

What do all these new wrinkles mean for Middle Eastern peacemaking? Will Netanyahu be forced to become more accommodating on limiting settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem's neighborhoods? What's the import of Sheikh Yassin's moderating tone?

At the least, there's greater fluidity, which could be an improvement over the set-in-concrete impasses of the last few months.

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