News Analysis: Self-interest brings Netanyahu and Arafat together

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NEW YORK — Beyond anything else, political self-interest was the driving force behind this week's sudden meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

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, Jordan's King Hussein had contacted Israeli officials with a message from Hamas that it was willing to suspend terror attacks against Israel — although 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 swoop, the fiasco in Amman had severely strained Israel's relations with Jordan, undermined Arafat, besmirched the reputation of Mossad, whose agents in Jordan posed as Canadian tourists, and revived calls for Netanyahu's resignation.

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

If that were not bad enough, to recover the two Mossad agents captured by Jordanians after the failed attack on Khaled Mashaal and to repair frayed relations with the king, Israel had to free the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

As part of the deal with Jordan, Israel also released 20 other Palestinian prisoners and agreed to free up to 50 more.

That was the price for assuaging the anger of Jordan's King Hussein, Israel's closest Arab ally, who made no secret of how he felt that Israel had used the streets of his capital as a base for a covert Mossad operation.

Yassin, after languishing in an Israeli prison since 1989, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, was flown last week to Amman.

Monday, 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 this 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 that role.

Clearly, the besieged Israeli premier had to do something.

The first effort at damage control came Monday, 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 news conference, in which he 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 Wednesday morning, 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. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross held separate meetings Tuesday 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 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 Monday's emphatic welcome for Yassin.

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

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

After their meeting, neither Netanyahu nor Arafat spoke with reporters. Ross characterized the meeting as a new beginning at which the two leaders recommitted themselves to advancing the peace process.

Ross said that the two had agreed to meet regularly in the future, but it was unclear whether they had accomplished anything else.

They discussed issues that will be taken up at meetings scheduled for later this month between the two sides in Washington, according to Israeli news reports.

Arafat also called on Netanyahu to stop construction projects on disputed lands and to implement a redeployment from rural areas of the West Bank, a move that was scheduled to take place last month, the reports said.

The Netanyahu-Arafat meeting took place a day after Israeli and Palestinian committees reconvened — after a seven-month suspension — 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.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday that the Palestinians were seeking a "three-month ceiling" for the committees to conclude their work.

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, that is of particular concern, since his viability as a leader depends on his ability to achieve concessions from Israel.