News Analysis – Israels hot potato: Hamas extradition

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WASHINGTON — The moment of truth is looming for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Will he order the extradition from the United States of Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzook?

With an April 6 deadline fast approaching, the decision of how to deal with a prominent figure in the militant Islamic group could not come at a worse time for Israel.

In the wake of construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem and a Hamas-inspired suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe, talks have broken down with the Palestinian Authority, and street clashes with Palestinians are now in their second week.

Netanyahu, who is demanding that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat crack down on Hamas militants and other terrorists, now faces a difficult choice.

If he brings Marzook to stand trial in Israel, it would likely further inflame Palestinian passions.

But if he passes on the opportunity to bring a Hamas leader to justice, he would look weak in the war on terrorism.

Further complicating the issue are reports out of Israel that prosecutors may have a difficult time proving in a court of law that Marzook had a direct hand in Hamas' military operations, as the Israelis charge.

Marzook maintains that he was only involved with fund-raising and organization of the political and social side of Hamas. He claims that the military wing operates outside his control.

Marzook, a legal U.S. resident, was arrested in July 1995 as he tried to clear customs at New York's Kennedy Airport. The arrest came after he was placed on the U.S. "watch list" of probable terrorists.

Faced with the prospect of the United States either freeing Marzook or deporting him to a third country, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin requested the Hamas leader's extradition to Israel.

As expected, Marzook mounted a vigorous 18-month defense against extradition from his New York jail cell. U.S. law does not allow for bail in such cases.

As his case dragged on and Hamas was losing support in the Palestinian-controlled areas, Marzook stunned Israeli and U.S. officials in January by dropping his legal battle against extradition.

Apparently feeling that his case was losing visibility, Marzook decided he would rather face his accusers in an Israeli courtroom than wait out the fight against extradition, which could have dragged on for years.

Now, the U.S. government is bumping up against an April 6 deadline to act on the extradition request.

U.S. officials knowledgeable about the discussions between Israelis and officials at the State and Justice departments refused to comment on their progress.

"This is a highly sensitive time," said one official, who insisted on anonymity.

Israeli officials also are not talking. But one Israeli official in Washington did acknowledge that "there's some work going on on this. It's a question of wait-and-see."

There is some flexibility with the April 6 deadline, sources said, but only a few days. The administration also could seek an extension of the deadline.

In order for extradition to take place, the Justice Department must act upon the extradition request and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright must approve it.

With the original Israeli request for extradition driving the legal process, Netanyahu now faces four basic options, according to sources familiar with the case:

*Bring Marzook to Israel to face trial.

*Drop the extradition request and allow the United States to free him.

*Convince the United States to press charges against Marzook for transferring money to a known terrorist group, which is against U.S. law.

If Netanyahu drops the extradition request, the United States has the option to prosecute Marzook on charges of sending millions of dollars to Hamas. The U.S. government also has the option of deporting him.

*Broker a deal to have him sent to a third country.

Talks began about three months ago between Israel and Jordan about a possible compromise under which Marzook would be sent to Jordan instead of Israel.

Since that time, Hamas broke a year of quiet and launched a suicide bombing attack March 21 in Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis.

Attention focused again on the Jordanian option this week as Jordan's King Hussein visited Washington for meetings with President Clinton and Albright.

"We have nothing to announce, yet," the Israeli official said.

Added a Jewish official in Washington: "The ball is in Netanyahu's court."