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Israel and PLO Pushed Toward Peace By Islamist Threat

CHIEF among the oddities that mark the nascent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is one supreme irony: The deal would probably never have happened had it not been for those most bitterly opposed to it - Muslim radicals.

Analysts on both sides of the accord say that the Middle East's newest and most unlikely allies, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, were each spurred to action by concern over a common enemy, radical political Islam.

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``I think the fear of fundamentalism was the major factor that led Rabin to change his mind, and deal directly with the PLO'' in secret talks in Norway that reached an outline of a peace treaty, says Danny Rubinstein, a commentator with the Israeli daily Haaretz.

``There is a common interest [between Israel and the PLO] to combat the religious,'' says Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political analyst. ``All the Arab leaders, including Arafat, feel threatened by them.''

Ever since Mr. Rabin's Labor government came to power just over a year ago, officials have persistently pointed to Iran's encouragement of Islamic radicals around the Middle East as the most serious threat to Israel's security. (Arab concerns, Page 6.)

The dangers of radical Islamism, and its threat to regional stablility, have become leitmotifs of Israeli public relations worldwide, and the Islamist Hamas group in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has become the Jewish state's public enemy No. 1.

Despite repeated blows by Israeli security, including the deportation of over 400 suspected militants last December, Hamas has proved capable of flourishing, driving many Israeli officials to believe that it can never be eradicated.

In refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, where poverty and squalid conditions make Palestinians especially desperate, the fiery and uncompromising rhetoric of Hamas leaders, pledging nothing less than the destruction of Israel, has proved particularly appealing.

``In the Middle East, the choices are never between bad and good,'' said Uri Dromi, head of the Israeli Government Press Office this week, explaining Mr. Rabin's decision to reverse Israel's historic policy of not dealing with the PLO. ``They are always between bad and worse.'' Seeing that the only alternative to the PLO was Hamas, he added, ``we decided to choose the bad rather than the worse.'' Challenge to Arafat

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The view from Mr. Arafat's villa in Tunis, where the PLO is headquartered, must have looked very similar.

Although the PLO leader has made some efforts in recent months to come to terms with Hamas, he has never disguised his anger at its challenge to the secular PLO's leadership of the Palestinian people.

In an outburst earlier this year, he likened Hamas to Inkatha, the Zulu-based party in South Africa that has sought to undermine the African National Congress's leadership of black South Africans.

But as the peace process launched two years ago in Madrid dragged on with no visible progress, and as the PLO lost its Arab funding and thus much of its patronage in the Israeli-occupied territories, Arafat's personal standing among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip sank ever lower.

As Hamas capitalized on the PLO's failings, it began to pose a serious challenge to the PLO's historic claim to be the ``sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.'' Arafat was in danger of becoming irrelevant, and the secular organization he heads was in danger of being swamped by Islamic militants with more popular credibility.

The Gaza-Jericho autonomy deal that Israeli and PLO officials worked out in 14 secret meetings in Norway this year gives Arafat another chance to recoup his popularity among his people.

If Arab and Western donors come up with the aid that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is asking for, ``Arafat will be able to bribe his society'' away from Hamas ``by bringing a lot of money in,'' Mr. Rubinstein says. Israel's handoff

At the same time, by giving the PLO responsibility for security in the autonomous region, Israel has handed Arafat the opportunity to deal as he likes with Hamas. ``Rabin decided that the way to cope with the fundamentalists was to let the PLO do the job for him,'' Rubinstein says.

PLO officials in Tunis have already warned they will deal sternly with radicals seeking to sabotage the autonomy deal.

If PLO security forces get rough with Hamas members, ``it won't be seen as Israelis killing Palestinians, but as Palestinians killing their own destructive elements,'' Mr. Qaq says.

Although the Palestinians are the first of Israel's negotiating partners to draft a peace accord, Israeli officials believe that concerns over Islamist radicals throughout the Middle East will prompt Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon to follow suit soon.

``We have in the region a common enemy, fundamentalism and poverty,'' said Uri Savir, head of Israel's secret negotiating team. ``What is starting to impress itself [on Arab leaders] is that without stability with Israel there can be no economic progress, and without economic progress, fundamentalism cannot be fought.''

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