Newsreal: Bibi the bungler

It is being called the worst fiasco in the history of Israel's once-vaunted intelligence service, the Mossad. It raises, once again, serious questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mental fitness, provoked unprecedented expressions of disgust from the Clinton administration and left experienced observers to wonder what other disastrous pratfalls the Israeli leader has in store for the dying Middle East peace process.

Published October 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- it is being called the worst fiasco in the history of Israel's once-vaunted intelligence service, the Mossad. It raises, once again, serious questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mental fitness. It provoked unprecedented expressions of disgust from the Clinton administration -- "we loathe him," one White House official remarked -- and left experienced observers to wonder what other disastrous pratfalls the Israeli leader has in store for the dying Middle East peace process.

The fiasco, which ranks right up there with the CIA's anti-Castro exploding cigars, involves a botched attempt by Mossad agents last month to assassinate Khaled Mashaal, a political leader of Hamas in Amman, Jordan. Jordan, you may remember, is one of the only Arab countries that has signed a peace treaty with Israel, and King Hussein, despite increasingly pro-Islamic sentiment in the desert kingdom, has served as Israel's most consistent apologist and defender in the Arab world.

In return for such largess, Prime Minister Netanyahu last month personally ordered the hit on Jordanian soil -- just one month before scheduled parliamentary elections there -- in retaliation for recent Hamas bombings in Jerusalem. Calling the attempt a "reckless betrayal" of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, King Hussein demanded -- and got -- the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, who was serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail. Ten thousand "delirious" supporters turned out to greet Yassin Monday in the Gaza Strip. Hamas now appears even stronger than ever, while Netanyahu, in the words of the Associated Press, was left "struggling to explain why he struck a deal with the sponsors of bombings against Israeli civilians."

"I'd be laughing my ass off if this was happening in somebody else's country," Israeli columnist Zeev Chafets said. "Let's not forget that Netanyahu, the putz who ordered up this farce, is the same guy who controls Israel's nuclear arsenal. Watching him screw up used to be entertaining. Now it's scary."

Strategically, the botched assassination already has caused severe damage to Israel's relations with Jordan. Zeev Schiff, military editor for the Haaretz newspaper, said Netanyahu's choice of Amman as the locale for the assassination attempt was "akin to carrying out an operation of this kind in Washington or some other friendly capital."

Worse, the affair comes at a time when Netanyahu has been urging PLO leader Yasser Arafat to crack down on Hamas. As a result of the fiasco, Arafat already has halted his crackdown while receiving Yassin as a hero. With the expected release of more Hamas prisoners in exchange for the two captured Mossad agents, Israel's security problems can be expected to grow.

The details of the assassination attempt itself, pieced together from reports in the Israeli and Jordanian press and Salon interviews with U.S., Jordanian and Israeli officials, read like a Woody Allen parody of a cheap spy thriller.

The day two Hamas suicide bombers struck at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 30, killing 16 Israelis, the Israeli cabinet met and voted to hunt down Hamas leaders wherever they could be found. According to Israeli officials, the broadly worded decision authorized the Mossad to begin drawing a number of plans to eliminate Hamas officials in a number of Arab capitals.

Sometime in late August, Mossad chief Dani Yatom presented Netanyahu with several assassination blueprints, including plans to liquidate Hamas officials in Damascus and Amman, the officials said. According to Israeli press reports, Netanyahu, who has publicly pointed the finger of responsibility at Damascus-based Hamas leaders for previous bombings, ruled out proposals for operations in the Syrian capital because they were too risky. But he did give the green light to hit Mashaal, described by Israeli and American experts as a relatively moderate Hamas political operative.

The method chosen to kill Mashaal was a lethal nerve toxin to be delivered through his skin. Late in September, two Israeli agents checked into the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman with Canadian passports that identified them as Shawn Kendall, 28, and Barry Beads, 36. On Sept. 25, the pair trailed Mashaal to his office, and as the Hamas official walked into the building, one of the agents came up behind him and held a device to Mashaal's left ear that stung him with the poison. The two agents then fled on foot.

Mashaal's bodyguard, an expert in martial arts, ran after them, but the Israelis jumped into a waiting vehicle and drove off. The bodyguard then flagged down a private car and gave chase as the two cars careened around corners at high speed. Suddenly, the first car stopped and the two Israelis jumped out, fleeing again on foot. Mashaal's bodyguard sprang from his own car and caught one of the Israelis by the back of his shirt.

Western and Jordanian press reports, quoting eyewitnesses, say the Israeli turned around and hit the bodyguard in the head with a blunt object, opening a wound that later required 18 stitches. Despite the blow, the bodyguard knocked out the Israeli with a single punch, pounced on the second Israeli, knocked him senseless and threw him down on an embankment. By this time, Jordanian security officers arrived and hauled the battered Israelis to a nearby police station.

Meanwhile, Mashaal began to feel the effect of the nerve toxin. Experiencing difficulty breathing and uncontrollable vomiting, he was rushed to hospital. By the next morning, Jordanian press reports said, Mashaal was unconscious, breathing through a respirator and running a temperature of 102 that did not respond to any treatment.

By this time, according to Jordanian officials, the two assailants had admitted under interrogation -- and had confessed on videotape -- that they worked for the Mossad. Canadian intelligence officials had examined their passports and determined they were forged.

Enter King Hussein. According to a the semi-official Jordanian Al-Rai newspaper, the monarch called Netanyahu demanding to obtain the antidote to the poison. Hussein warned Netanyahu that if Mashaal died, the two captured Israeli agents would be tried in public and hanged, and that Jordan would sever diplomatic relations with Israel. Netanyahu reportedly refused. The king then called President Clinton in Washington, urging him to pressure Netanyahu for the antidote. After a call from Clinton, Netanyahu finally relented, and a Mossad official administered the antidote, saving Mashaal's life. After the call, Clinton reportedly remarked bout Netanyahu: "I can't stand that man. He's impossible." Another senior White House official confirmed the remark, adding: "We loathe him."

The next day, Netanyahu, accompanied by several government ministers and security officials, secretly flew to Amman to demand the release of their captured agents. The normally gracious king refused to see them. But Hussein instructed his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, to tell the Israelis that the price of the agents' freedom would be high. In order to soothe the Islamic opposition in Jordan in advance of November's parliamentary election, Hassan said, the Israelis would have to release Sheikh Yassin. He also indicated the Israelis probably would have to release more Hamas prisoners before the agents could be returned.

Hassan then flew to Washington, where he showed President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reams of evidence against the Israeli agents, including the damning videotape. He also appealed to the president to take a firmer hand in preventing the disintegration of the peace process and told the Washington Post that he still feels "waves of nausea" when he thinks of Netanyahu's actions and their consequences for Middle East peace.

"I cannot understand how the Israeli prime minister thinks, and this causes me great worry," King Hussein told the London-based Al-Hayat

Predictably, the Labor Party opposition is screaming for Netanyahu's resignation, and a number of conservative columnists and retired generals have joined the chorus. A public opinion poll published Monday shows Netanyahu with a 32 percent approval rating among Israeli Jews, his lowest rating since he took office in June 1996.

But as in previous crises, Netanyahu is protected by his right-wing coalition, which commands a 68-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament. Netanyahu's opponents would need the support of 61 parliamentary deputies to topple his government in a vote of no-confidence and 81 votes to remove him personally.

"There's going to be a lot of screaming, but I can't see Netanyahu falling on his sword," Chafets said. "Sadly, I fear the only way he's going is resting on his sword, like a kabob."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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