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MIDDLE EAST : A Peace That Ignores Assassination--Even When Israel May Be the Assassin

November 05, 1995|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, author of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community" (Houghton Mifflin) and journalist for the daily Ha'aretz, frequently writes on intelligence and terrorism

TEL AVIV — Shimon Peres' body language expressed it all. Israeli's foreign minister was talking to reporters a few days after the assassination of Fathi Shikaki, the leader of the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad. The Damascus-based fundamentalist organization is responsible for some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks against Israel; in one such attack last year, 50 Israelis were killed. Though no one had claimed responsibility for the deed on Malta, Peres did not conceal his satisfaction at Shikaki's death. "He was a murderer who eventually was himself murdered," said the Israeli leader.

There may have been a few more reasons for Peres' pleasure. He made his comments in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where the second Middle East/North Africa Economic Summit was under way. Israeli businessmen, middlemen and politicians were rubbing shoulders with their Arab counterparts--sheiks, kings, princes, industrialists and entrepreneurs. Several deals and economic ventures were being clinched. The biggest--worth $5 billion and involving Israel, Qatar and Enron, a U.S. oil corporation--will ferry natural gas from the Gulf Emirates via the Suez Canal to a Mediterranean port in Israel. And with the help of American and European capital, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and eight Arab countries agreed to establish a bank for the development of the region.

There is another dimension to the events in Malta and Amman. As the economic summit was unfolding, leaders of the top-10 secular and religious terrorist groups convened in Damascus for Shikaki's funeral. Among them: Ahmed Jibril of the PFLP-General Command; representatives of the notorious Abu Nidal group, and the pro-Iranian, Lebanese-based Hezbollah. They all met Ramadan Abdallah, who was chosen and sanctioned by Iran's intelligence to succeed Shikaki as the new leader of Islamic Jihad. Abdallah, a professor of Islam economics, spent the last five years in the United States, where he taught courses on "Islamic fundamentalism" at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

All the anti-Israel leaders and their groups, sponsored by Iran and Syria, vowed to help Abdallah regroup his organization and avenge the death of his predecessor. They, as well as the international media and intelligence communities all over the world, assume that agents of Mossad, Israel's foreign espionage agency, had assassinated Shikaki. Thus, the threats are taken seriously.

The gathering in Damascus was a demonstration of Syrian defiance of the U.S.-sponsored peace process. Only two days before the funeral, Secretary of State Warren Christopher had met with Hafez Assad, the Syrian president, and urged him to back off his support for terrorists and to restart the stalled peace negotiation with Israel. But the use of terror is increasingly a factor in Syrian calculations to force Israel to make more political concessions and accept a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, as a precondition to a peace treaty. These efforts include encouraging Hezbollah to intensify its military activities along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The funeral, however, was also a show of weakness, indicating the inability of Syria, Iran and their radical allies to substantially influence the Middle East's new agenda. The readiness of participants in the Amman economic summit to go about their business with Israel, while ignoring the assassination, is a strong sign of how deeply rooted the peace process is in the region. Next week, Yasser Arafat's authority will extend from the densely populated and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip to Jenin, which will become his second foothold on the West Bank after Jericho. Within the next two months, Israel will evacuate its soldiers from all the towns and large villages in the area.

Elsewhere, economic and diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan are expanding rapidly. Jordanians and Israelis are talking about upgrading Jordan's air force through Israel's advanced aeronautical industries. While meetings between King Hussein, the Jordanian monarch, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin are now routine, there is also increasing cooperation on intelligence, enabling the two sides to exchange information on terrorists.

In addition, Israel has established formal diplomatic or commercial relations, on various levels, with eight of the 22 members of the Arab League. Sources in the Israeli Foreign Ministry reveal that another three countries will soon follow, thereby enlarging the peace camp. There are even changes in the Egyptian attitude. Until recently, and despite being the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, Egypt cold-shouldered Israel on trade and commerce. Now, as confirmed by Amir Moussa, its foreign minister, Egypt is seeking to warm up its economic relationship with Israel.

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