News Analysis: Israelis stew over security as Arafat woos Hamas

JERUSALEM — Will Yasser Arafat's invitation to Hamas to join his Cabinet ultimately affect the security of Israel?

That question loomed over the Jewish state early this week after the chairman of the Palestinian Authority made his invitation as part of a reshuffle.

The offer came on the eve of a Palestinian legislative council session that was expected to focus on alleged corruption in Arafat's government.

It also came just days ahead of the expected return to the Gaza Strip of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas. Yassin, who had been waiting in a hotel in Sudan for Israel to clear his entry into the country, recently completed an extensive Middle East tour, collecting some $50 million for the fundamentalist Islamic group.

Those two developments appear to be behind Arafat's decision to extend the offer to Hamas despite that group's opposition to the peace process.

The Palestinian leader's move was at least partially successful.

Monday, the legislature granted Arafat the 10-day extension he requested to make the Cabinet changes — and to continue his talks with Hamas.

Whether Hamas would eventually join the Palestinian government — and thus for the first time give formal recognition to the Palestinian Authority that was established as a result of the Oslo process — remains doubtful.

A Hamas spokesman in Jordan immediately spurned Arafat's offer, but a leader of the group in Gaza said a final decision would await Yassin's return.

Some analysts said there was little doubt about the outcome.

"Hamas has no interest in joining Arafat," said Yosef Ginat, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Haifa University.

"Yassin has just returned from his Middle East tour with a bag full of money. He will funnel the money to develop social causes, such as kindergartens and clinics, and thus strengthen Hamas' hold in the territories even further."

Ginat, who served as an adviser on Arab affairs to Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the 1980s, said high-ranking sources in Egypt told him Hamas did not intend to make life easy on Arafat.

Israelis, meanwhile, were concerned that if the pundits are wrong, a united Palestinian front would gravely endanger the Jewish state's security. Ironically, in that regard, a strong Arafat makes more political sense than a weaker one.

For the time being, however, at least in one area Hamas appears to be cooperating with the Palestinian Authority.

For nearly a year, Hamas has refrained from terrorist attacks in Israel. But whether the Palestinian Authority has urged Hamas to halt such attacks is up for debate.

"Arafat has threatened Hamas that if they renew the terrorist attacks, all hell will break lose," said Ginat.

According to that rationale, Arafat, fearing an all-out military conflict, does not want to give Israel a pretext to end negotiations.

But Yuval Steiniz, an Israeli observer of Palestinian affairs, gave another explanation of why there have not been any recent attacks.

"Arafat and his allies decided already two years ago that a major military confrontation with Israel is getting close. They agree that the right political strategy is to minimize terrorism in the period prior to that confrontation, so that responsibility for the flare-up will lie on Netanyahu's intransigence and not on the terrorist attacks."

The Israeli government, meanwhile, charged that the very thought of offering Hamas seats in the Cabinet amounted to a serious violation of the Oslo Accords.

"Arafat's invitation to a terrorist group to participate in Palestinian governmental activity without demanding that it renounce terrorism and disarm its military wing makes a mockery of the Palestinian Authority's promises to wage a systematic campaign to uproot the terrorist infrastructure," the Netanyahu government said in a statement.

Israel was not pleased with Yassin's regional tour. The crippled Hamas leader had ostensibly left Gaza to seek medical treatment, not to raise funds.

The Israelis discussed banning Yassin's return this week, but eventually decided that it was better to have him within the self-rule areas.

Yassin was released from an Israeli jail last October in exchange for two Israel agents held by Jordan after the botched assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

The sheik's triumphant return to Gaza last fall strengthened Hamas as a political force poised against Arafat.

Now, after leaders in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Iran welcomed him — Saudi King Fahd's brothers reportedly gave Yassin $25 million — Yassin was coming back again even stronger.

"His position will certainly be strengthened in comparison with other Palestinian leaders," Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab aide of Arafat, said in an interview.

And that will make Arafat's attempt to co-opt the Islamic group by bringing it into his government even harder.