Bibi flounders in sea of troubles after Hamas fiasco

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Israel has released Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas, just as it was demanding that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, put Hamas leaders in jail.

Jerusalem is clearly already feeling the consequences of the capture of two of its agents in Jordan after a failed assassination bid.

Critics of the Soviet Union in the Eighties used to refer to it as "Upper Volta with rockets". Adapting the phrase, an observer in Jerusalem this week said Israel was acting like "Upper Volta with rockets and a Washington lobby".

No doubt it is very unfair to use Upper Volta as a benchmark for political underdevelopment. But the attempt to assassinate a member of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation, in the streets of Amman, shows Israel as a country which, despite its armed strength and influence in the United States, is now responding to political challenges in a very primitive way.

The sheer zaniness of the assassination attempt by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, on Khalid Meshal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, is only beginning to sink in. Even supposing it had succeeded and Mossad had got clear away, the death of Mr Meshal would not have crippled Hamas, which would probably have responded with more suicide bombs.

But if it went wrong, as it did, then the outcome was wholly predictable. King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, which has never been very popular in Jordan. Suddenly he discovers that Mossad feels free to carry out an assassination in his capital. No wonder, going by Israeli press reports, he telephoned Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, threatening to break off diplomatic relations and demanding the antidote to the poison used on Mr Meshal.

Israel then released Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, to molify King Hussein. But in doing so it left its policy towards Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, in tatters. For months Mr Netanyahu has been insisting - and has got President Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, to echo his words - that Mr Arafat had to arrest members of Hamas. Furthermore, he was to destroy its "infrastructure" by closing Hamas schools, clinics and social services.

Now, just when Mr Arafat was complying, Israel releases the head of Hamas, his prestige enhanced by eight years incarceration. It will be virtually impossible for the Palestinian Authority, in these circumstances, to keep Hamas members locked up. Nor will Sheikh Yassin take kindly to the continued closure of Hamas charitable organisations, which he helped establish and on which some 50-60,000 of the poorer Gazans rely.

Mr Netanyahu has so far been spared the repercussions in Israel of the release of Sheikh Yassin and the failed assassination because of the start of the Jewish New Year. But it is probable that he would have had to approve the Mossad operation. And if he did so, Israelis will ask questions about his judgement. If the attack had succeeded he would have gained little. If it failed, as it did, then the consequences were likely to grave.

Nor is the Amman operation the only one to have to have failed in recent weeks. Early last month, 11 Israeli naval commandos, the elite of the Israeli military elite, were killed in an Hezbollah ambush far north of the Israeli occupation zone in Lebanon. They were reportedly there to kill a leader of Hezbollah, the Islamic guerrillas, though in this case they were betrayed by a Lebanese double-agent. Again the likelihood is that Mr Netanyahu authorised the mission.

In fact the Israeli Prime Minister's recipe for dealing with his country's relations with Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians is very simple. He argues that there was no real need for the previous government of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995, and Shimon Peres, his successor, to make the concessions they made at Oslo. Instead, the Arabs can be faced down. If they object then Israel can use its military superiority and political strength in Washington to force them to back down.

The attack by Mossad in Amman, the naval commando raid in Lebanon and the pressure on Mr Arafat to arrest all members of Hamas, show that Mr Netanyahu believes his diagnosis that "terrorism" against Israel is separate from real political grievances. Get rid of terrorism, he argues, and then Israel will talk about peace.

The truth is very different. Until there is a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians there will probably be suicide bombs. Hamas did not invent them. They were used with massive effect in Lebanon against US and Israeli troops in the Eighties.

Indeed, Mr Netanyahu has himself ensured that suicide bombs will go on by saying that he will not implement Oslo if there are more attacks. This, of course, gives an immediate incentive to those in Syria and Iran, who detest Oslo themselves, to plant a few bombs so Mr Netanyahu can serve their purposes by stopping implementation of the agreement.

Probably Mr Netanyahu can survive the debacle in Amman. He is lucky that it happened just before a holiday in Israel. He can claim that the needs of national security prevent him from telling all.

But the image of Israel as Upper Volta, buttressed by nuclear weapons and an immensely influential lobby in Washington, is more than just a jibe. Acquisition of nuclear missiles was a great advantage to the Soviet Union in terms of the balance of power with its adversaries. But the confidence the missiles inspired stunted the desire to change, to adapt to the outside world.

In the same way Israel's nuclear arsenal and its Washington lobby makes Israel a politically rigid place. Concessions are denounced as an unnecessary weakness. Problems in neighbouring countries are handled by raiding parties - two of which have come so spectacularly to grief in the last month.

l Israel expressed regret over Canada's recall of its ambassador following the arrest of two men with forged Canadian passports in Jordan after an attack on a leader of Hamas. Canada's foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy on Thursday said the envoy had been recalled for "immediate consultations" and that Ottawa took "great exception" to the use of false Canadian documents.