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Hamas Debacle Gives Peace a Boost

Israeli-PLO talks will resume despite efforts by militants to disrupt the process, but Arafat faces greater risk of conflict with radicals

THE year-old Palestinian-Israeli peace accord, battered by last week's kidnap drama but bolstered by the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, has reached a watershed.

The Israeli raid, which ended the drama and left two Israeli soldiers, including the abducted soldier, Nachshon Waxman, and three Islamic extremists dead Friday, has polarized Palestinians and driven the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant Hamas into open conflict.

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In doing so, it has strengthened the common interest between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in preventing the peace process from being hijacked by Islamic militants.

Israel announced yesterday that it would resume peace negotiations with the PLO on Tuesday in Cairo, after suspending them last week over the kidnapping of Waxman. The Cabinet also said the clampdown on the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip would be lifted today.

``It's clear Hamas is against the two of us [Israel and the PLO] because the two of us are for peace,'' Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israeli television Saturday night.

``Over the last two or three days I believe that Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority [PA] did show a readiness to counteract the danger of Hamas,'' Mr. Peres said in remarks that captured the fundamental shift in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

Peres appeared to be compensating for Rabin's hard line against Arafat over failing to prevent Hamas from using Gaza as a springboard for attacks against Israel and for insisting that Waxman was being held in Gaza.

``It is not in our interests to humiliate Arafat,'' says Ehum Barnea, columnist for the Hebrew daily Yedioth Aharonoth.

Arafat's cooperation with Israel in arresting 300 Hamas activists, providing vital intelligence, and launching a search for the Israeli soldier has shattered relations between the PLO and Hamas but strengthened the common goal of Palestinian self-rule between Israel and the PLO.

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``There is no way back for either Rabin or Arafat,'' says Danny Rubenstein of the Hebrew daily Haaretz. ``They are both in the same boat.''

But the kidnap drama could lead to more instability in the short-term.

Hamas, vehemently opposed to the Israeli-PLO peace deal, suffered a setback with the killing of its activists and failed in its demands to have its prisoners released.

Rabin had to retract his claim that the soldier was being held in Gaza and cover for Israeli commandos who bungled the attempt to free Waxman.

Arafat now faces a damaging showdown with Hamas, which continues to say it intends to wreck the peace deal.

Hamas has accused the PLO of collaboration with the Israelis and threatened civil war. Rabin has insisted that the PLO meet new demands to stop Gaza from being used as a terrorist base.

The PLO is demanding full autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank.

``If Rabin wants to continue with the peace process, he must convince Israelis that the peace accord holds benefits for their personal security,'' Mr. Barnea said. ``And they won't be convinced if they can see Gaza is a new safe haven for terrorists.''

In terms of the peace accord, the PA has responsibility for security in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho only. Security in the rest of the West Bank is still controlled by the Israelis.

But Mr. Rubinstein predicted that Arafat would win a protracted battle with Hamas because the majority of Hamas supporters were conservative in a religious sense and not likely to support terrorist action.

``The silent majority will support Arafat,'' Rubinstein said.

PLO officials made it clear that the tough line against Hamas would continue. ``We will not permit anything to harm the national security,'' said PA Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabo after a PA Cabinet meeting Saturday.

The PA announced it had outlawed the use of loudspeakers at mosques in the autonomous areas for disseminating political propaganda and imposed a ban on carrying firearms in public.

Analysts are divided over Arafat's chances of political survival if he is forced into a direct confrontation with Hamas.

``Arafat has an interest in weakening Hamas by containing it,'' says Jerusalem-based Palestinian analyst Ghassan al-Khatib.

``But Rabin is pushing him into a headlong fight which he cannot win. Hamas is not an army which can be defeated. It is among the people, and a sustained crackdown will lead to instability in Gaza,'' he said.

MR. Khatib says the Hamas kidnapping had enjoyed wide popular support among Palestinians because it highlighted the plight of political prisoners and targeted Israeli occupation on the West Bank.

The tragic death of Waxman cast a pall over Friday's Nobel Peace Prize announcement. Clearly embarrassed by the timing of the Nobel announcement, both Arafat and Rabin found it necessary to publicly distance themselves from the award. (Nobel Prize, right.)

``The prize is not for me,'' Arafat said at a news conference in Alexandra, Egypt, on Friday.

``It is for my people who suffered a lot ... for our martyrs, for our prisoners ... for the future.''

Rabin made only one reference to the Nobel award in a long news conference after the raid on Friday night. ``I would say that I would be happy to give back the Nobel Peace Prize to bring back to life both of the soldiers who fell,'' Rabin said.

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