Netanyahu agrees to Arafat summit

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, were planning to meet in summit early today while Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Islamic organisation Hamas, offered Israel a truce but ruled out permanent reconciliation.

The US envoy Dennis Ross last night arranged a meeting for the early hours of this morning between Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu, their first in eight months.

The summit could signal a thaw after a seven-month crisis that has brought Israeli-Palestinian relations to the brink of total breakdown.

The summit plan emerged soon after Israel and the Palestinians had restarted negotiations suspended since Israel started to build a settlement at Har Homa in March.

Israeli reports said Mr Netanyahu was interested in holding the summit, perhaps to deflect attention away from the spiralling scandal over the botched assassination attempt two weeks ago by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence organisation, against a Hamas leader in Jordan.

Israel is still absorbing the consequences of the attempted assassination - 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.

Mr Netanyahu has counter-attacked his critics, saying the Amman debacle was 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. 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.