Israel feels effects of Hamas affair

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Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic organisation Hamas, yesterday offered Israel a truce in return for an end to Jewish settlements, demolition of Palestinian houses and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. But he ruled out permanent reconciliation. Patrick Cockburn reports.

Israel is still absorbing the consequences of the attempted assassination of a leader of Hamas in Amman which led to the freeing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Since his return to Gaza he has shown that he is politically versatile and, whatever his state of health, capable of giving frequent interviews.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has counter-attacked his critics, saying the debacle in Amman was simply an operation against terrorism which went wrong. He has appointed a commission of inquiry, but it has few powers. Mr Netanyahu may be damaged in the eyes of the Israeli public by the realisation that Hamas is now a serious political force, thanks primarily to the actions of Israel.

He may also have damaged his credibility in Washington by refusing to tell Jordan the name of the poison injected into Khalid Meshal, the Hamas leader, by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence organisation. Instead, he sent an antidote which Jordan refused to accept because it thought it might be more poison. The issue was only settled by President Bill Clinton.

Overshadowed by the so-called Meshal affair, talks have begun between Israel and the Palestinians over restarting negotiations suspended since Israel started to build a settlement at Har Homa in March. Dennis Ross, the United States peace envoy, struck an optimistic note saying: "We heard a very strong sense of mutual commitment on the part of both sides to try to move ahead."