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News Analysis: Despite Trauma of Kidnapping Ordeal, Israel and PLO Won’t Abandon Process

Despite Israel’s decision to resume talks with the Palestinians, the kidnapping and killing of Nachshon Waxman has revived some difficult questions about the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For one thing, the weeklong ordeal surrounding the soldier’s kidnapping has left the Israeli people reeling and their confidence in the peace process with the Palestinians shaken.

The affair also weakened Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who is caught between Israeli demands to crack down on Hamas militants in Gaza and the risk of Palestinian civil war.

The Waxman affair has sharply highlighted the critical tests Arafat must pass in the days ahead to ensure the survival of his nascent Palestinian Authority and the autonomy it oversees.

Some believe the fresh doubts it triggered over Palestinian security capabilitities could slow down the next phases of autonomy, which call for Israeli redeployment in the West Bank on the eve of Palestinian elections and a stepped-up role for Palestinian security forces.

But analysts say that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a vested interest in minimizing the damage from last week’s events.

They say both sides must convince their skeptical constituents that the painful process will pay off as they move forward as sure-footedly as possible.

‘TOO MUCH TO RISK’

“Both parties have too much to risk to abandon the process,” said Elie Rekhess, an analyst with Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle East Research.

Thus, despite the wrenching episode which climaxed in a failed commando rescue operation last Friday night, Israeli officials were scheduled to return to the table with the Palestinians in Cairo on Tuesday. On Monday, the government also reopened the border with Gaza, closed since the kidnapping last week.

The main test in the eyes of Israeli leaders will be Arfat’s ability to show he is serious about security. This will help them defend the agreement before their own opposition and a disheartened public.

Arafat “can’t have peace with Israel and peace with Hamas terror groups” at the same time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said.

Some observers believe that how the PLO handles the Hamas opposition will be Arafat’s true test.

In the wake of the kidnapping, which Arafat saw as a direct challenge and embarrassment to his authority by Hamas, the PLO leader ordered hundreds of alleged Hamas activists arrested.

On Monday, however, the Palestinian Authority, which rules over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank enclave of Jericho, released some of the Hamas detainees.

At the same time, it announced a new campaign against unlicensed weapons in the self-rule areas.

To everyone, however, it is clear that Arafat must walk a tightrope to meet Israeli demands to be a good-faith partner in their agreement and to be and to avoid an all-out conflict among Palestinians.

As part of his difficult balancing act, Arafat has made the distinction between the military wing of Hamas and its political party, which he has no interest in outlawing, according to analysts.

The political arm of Hamas enjoys broad support and Arafat wants to include it in the election process.

At the same time, such a distinction makes it more palatable for Arafat to crack down on the military operation, according to Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“He’ll say there’s no room for two security forces” in Gaza, Baskin said.

According to Barry Rubin, professor at Barllan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Arafat will take action against Hamas only to the degree that he sees its actions as a threat to his authority.

Chances are, Rubin said, Arafat’s get-tough measures will be “too much for Hamas and not enough for Israel.”

Still, Israel understands the pressures on Arafat and will not demand the unattainable, he said. “What Israel wants is progress and improvements.”

‘BETWEEN THE ANVIL AND THE HAMMER’

The PLO is “between the anvil and the hammer,” according to Rekhess of Tel Aviv University.

He said he believes the PLO genuinely wants to comply with its peace accord with Israel, but that it is also threatened by “an opposition of a kind never confronted by them before.”

Rekhess said it should not be forgotten how “very revolutionary” it was to have Palestinian security forces cooperating with Israeli forces in the days following the kidnapping.

But he believes Arafat is not likely to “crack down” any time soon in the contest with Hamas and will try instead to find a “compromise” solution aimed at bringing the fundamentalists into the political process.

“It’s a delicate game,” he said, adding that he believes Arafat has enough maneuverability to play it.

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, was unruffled by the recent turbulent events.

“There is no doubt this setback is a temporary one,” he said. “I see a few problems ahead, but not enough to defeat the process.”

Shikaki does believe, however, that Arafat has failed to “deliver to the Israelis on security” because he is hampered in his fight against Hamas by his lack of legitimacy among some of his own people.

“Arafat faces a Catch-22,” said. “He needs elections badly” to win legitimacy and fight the militant opposition, but “he is unable to hold them because Israel won’t redeploy until he delivers on security.”

Under the terms of the Israeli-PLO accord, Palestinian elections are to take place after Israel withdraws from major population centers in the West Bank.

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