News Analysis: Hamas Leader’s Release Propelled Netanyahu Meeting with Arafat

Far from being a major turning point in the beleaguered peace process, last week’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, beyond anything else, served the political self-interest of both leaders.

Questions about how the long-dormant peace process would unfold took a back seat to a more important issue for the two — demonstrating that each can assume the role of statesman and deliver for his people.

For Netanyahu, there was a particular urgency to have his first face-to-face meeting with Arafat in eight months.

He was plagued by a new scandal — a botched Mossad mission to assassinate a Hamas leader on the streets of Jordan’s capital — and a summit with Arafat provided a way to deflect attention from that fiasco.

Compounding the scandal were reports that two days before the Sept. 25 attack, Hussein had contacted Israeli officials with a message from Hamas that it was willing to suspend terror attacks against Israel — but the message was never conveyed to Netanyahu.

It was no surprise when reports surfaced that it was Netanyahu who had asked for the meeting with Arafat.

In one fell blow, the fiasco in Amman had severely strained Israel’s relations with Jordan, undermined Arafat, besmirched the reputation of Mossad and revived calls for Netanyahu’s resignation.

But, perhaps worst of all, it had strengthened the hand of the very organization targeted in the assassination attempt: Hamas.

If this were not bad enough, to recover from Jordan the two Mossad agents captured after the failed attack on Khaled Mashaal, Israel had to free the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

As part of the deal with Jordan, Israel last week released 20 other prisoners, most of whom had Jordanian passports, and agreed to free up to 50 more. This week, Israeli officials released an addition nine Arab prisoners.

This was the price for assuaging the anger of Hussein, Israel’s closest Arab ally, who made no secret of how he felt about Israel’s using the streets of his capital as a base for a covert operation.

This week, Jordanian officials said that they were suspending security cooperation with the Jewish state — a statement that Israeli officials said had no reality.

It may have had more to do with political rhetoric emanating from the king, who has kept a keen eye on his country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. The Islamic fundamentalist opposition would like nothing better than to cast him as too close a friend of the Zionist enemy.

Over and above Hussein’s anger at the Jewish state, those elections had much to do with his seeking Yassin’s release.

After languishing in an Israeli prison since 1989, when Yassin was sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, the Hamas leader was flown Oct. 1 to Amman.

On Oct. 6, he returned to a hero’s welcome in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, which has several captains in bureaus throughout the Middle East, suddenly had a general.

At various times last week, Yassin gave conflicting signals of whether, and under what conditions, Hamas would now suspend its terror attacks against Israel.

But more important than what he said was the fact that there was now a new player, spotlighted at center stage, in the region’s politics.

And Netanyahu, by all accounts, was responsible for casting Yassin in this role.

Clearly, the besieged Israeli premier had to do something.

The first effort at damage control came Oct. 6, when Netanyahu broke his silence on the failed Mossad operation, telling an internationally televised news conference that it was part of Israel’s ongoing fight against terror.

This fight had its successes, he said, but there were also failures. Without speaking explicitly about the attempt to kill Mashaal, Netanyahu announced the creation of a government committee “to clarify the events that happened in Jordan.”

The committee held its first hearings Sunday, when Mossad chief Danny Yatom maintained that all Israeli intelligence branches — including the Shin Bet domestic security service and army intelligence — had prior knowledge of the Mossad operation.

Last week’s news conference, in which Netanyahu cast himself as the warrior against terrorism in all its forms, served as a valiant first effort at self- defense.

But more was needed.

Before dawn broke on Oct. 8, Netanyahu traveled to the Erez Crossing separating Israel from Gaza and met with Arafat for more than two hours.

The last time they met was Feb. 9, three weeks after Israel pulled its troops out of most of the West Bank town of Hebron.

Then, the two discussed the next steps in the peace process. Within weeks, Israel began construction for a Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Authority responded by suspending negotiations.

Relations between the two sides have been on a downward slope ever since.

Hamas filled the void created by the suspended talks by launching two sets of terror attacks in Jerusalem in July and September, killing 21 Israelis.

When U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross held separate meetings on Oct. 7 with Netanyahu and Arafat, the Palestinian Authority leader could well have balked at meeting the premier.

Arafat knew that Netanyahu was seeking to bolster his prestige, and he could have let the Israeli leader stew in his own juices.

But Arafat needed the meeting as much as Netanyahu.

Arafat, who had been left out of the negotiations between Israel and Jordan over the swap of Yassin for the Mossad agents, had been denied the glory of securing the Hamas leader’s release.

And when Yassin arrived in Gaza to a tumultuous greeting from thousands of followers, Arafat knew that he had a serious contender for the affections of the Palestinian people.

Ultimately, for Arafat to achieve gains, he needs Hamas to desist from terror and back his efforts to achieve a permanent peace agreement with Israel.

But Arafat could not afford to stand in the Hamas leader’s shadow, so he carefully avoided the tumultuous Oct. 6 event marking Yassin’s return to Gaza.

Neither could he risk ignoring Yassin entirely — so he visited the freed Islamic leader the following day.

It was also on Oct. 7 that Arafat told Ross he would meet Netanyahu at Erez.

After their meeting the following day, neither Netanyahu nor Arafat spoke with reporters. Ross said that the two had agreed to meet regularly in the future, but it was unclear whether they had accomplished anything else.

The two sides have taken steps in addition to the Netanyahu-Arafat meeting.

On Tuesday, Israel announced it was turning over some $57 million in transfer taxes it had withheld from the Palestinian Authority since the July terror attack. Also this week, top security officials from the two sides discussed intelligence sharing.

And last week, after a seven-month suspension, Israeli and Palestinian committees reconvened to discuss issues still unresolved from the 1995 Interim Agreement.

The committees were slated to discuss the opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza, a safe-passage route for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza, and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

It remains to be seen whether these various steps will bear fruit in the form of a revitalized peace process.

The Palestinians, concerned that the Netanyahu government will content itself with an extended process of discussions, want to see tangible results.

For Arafat, with Yassin’s presence in Gaza creating a new set of realities, this is of particular concern, since his viability as a leader depends on his ability to achieve concessions from Israel.

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