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Israel's Botched Hit: Flash of Truth Amid Lies

By Robert Parry

The Consortium News, 1997


On Sept. 25, a two-man Israeli hit team was on the prowl in Amman, Jordan, looking for Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Obeying secret orders to avenge suicide bombings in Israel, the assassins drove a non-descript drab-green Hyundai to Meshal's house and followed him on his route to work.

When Meshal climbed out of his car, the assassins jumped out, too. According to witnesses, one assassin had a gray device strapped to his arm and approached Meshal from behind. The assassin lifted his arm in the direction of Meshal's left ear. The device emitted a popping sound -- and forced a lethal toxin into Meshal's skin.

The assassins fled. Meshal collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. There, doctors puzzled over the curious malady that soon left Meshal clinging to life on a respirator.

But this dramatic incident did not end as a medical mystery. Instead, it touched off an international furor. Enraged by an assassination attempt in his own capital, Jordan's King Hussein blamed Israel and demanded that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu deliver the antidote to save Meshal's life. If Netanyahu refused, King Hussein warned of reprisals, including the possible severing of relations with Israel.

Under normal circumstances, Netanyahu might have weathered this diplomatic storm behind a protective barrier of intelligence "deniability." He might have rejected allegations of Israeli complicity and pretended not to know what had caused Meshal's illness.

Meshal might have died an unexplained death and the truth would have disappeared into a haze of historical suspicions. There even might have been some mocking stories in The New Republic or other staunchly pro-Israeli publications commenting on the cultural proclivity of Arabs to believe in baseless "conspiracy theories." Israeli assassins with a mysterious toxin? The Israelis, of all people, using poison gas?

But the Meshal affair was one of those rare moments when truth was plucked from the thicket of intelligence deceptions. This happened -- as it does occasionally -- because of the capture of clear physical evidence that could not be cleverly spun by propagandists. Netanyahu could not dismiss King Hussein's allegations because Meshal's bodyguards chased the assassins -- first on foot, then by car and then on foot again.

One bodyguard, trained in martial arts, subdued one of the assassins by force and the other surrendered. Their false identities as Canadian tourists quickly collapsed and the two were identified as agents of Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad. Netanyahu had no choice but to admit Israeli complicity. His fall-back was to justify the attack as appropriate retaliation for the suicide bombings. [For details on the Meshal case, see Barton Gellman's account in The Washington Post, Oct. 6, 1997]

But the Meshal case carries another lesson: investigators should not reject too quickly other stories of controversial Israeli intelligence operations. Since World War II, Israeli operatives have engaged in many daring exploits, first to found the Jewish state and since then to defend its fragile security. One storied Israeli intelligence operation kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and brought him to Israel for execution.

The legacy of the Holocaust and the hostility of many Arab neighbors have pushed Israelis into this harsh pragmatism where the ends can be made to justify the means, where rough justice exacts an eye for an eye, even when revenge is inflicted on a group, not the guilty individual. When international controversy does flare, Israel can rely on sympathizers in Western countries to protect its P.R. flanks.

Out in the Cold

That was the case, too, in the early 1990s when Israel faced a potential P.R. disaster with the defection of possibly the most knowledgeable intelligence agent ever: Ari Ben-Menashe. A 10-year veteran of an Israeli military intelligence office called the External Relations Department, Ben-Menashe was arrested in the United States in late 1989 on charges of trying to sell C-130 cargo planes to Iran.

After the arrest, the Israeli government informed federal prosecutors and U.S. journalists that Ben-Menashe had never worked for Israeli intelligence. Left out in the cold, Ben-Menashe began divulging some of Israel's most closely held secrets. Over time, those secrets included:

--Details about Israel's nuclear program and collaboration with South Africa's white-supremacist government in developing and testing nuclear weapons.

--Allegations that the government of Menachem Begin cooperated with the Reagan-Bush campaign and with conservative European intelligence services to ship arms to Iran in 1980, thus undermining President Carter's efforts to free 52 American hostages.

--Accounts of secret Israeli diplomacy to disrupt a CIA-sanctioned operation to funnel military hardware to Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the 1980s.

--Israeli use of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell as an intelligence operative who disseminated propaganda and arranged clandestine weapons shipments through the Eastern Bloc.

I was one of the first reporters to interview Ben-Menashe, in New York City's federal prison in February 1990 when I was still a correspondent for Newsweek. He was a difficult interview, brash and arrogant, talking down to me as though I were someone who couldn't be expected to grasp the more complicated picture. He outlined an intelligence world -- almost an alternative history -- that existed beneath the surface of events that common citizens would know.

When I informed Ben-Menashe that Israel was denying any connection to him, he arranged with his mother to send me a package of his personal documents. They included letters of reference establishing that he indeed had worked for ERD, an arm of the Aman or military intelligence.

Confronted with the documents, Israeli officials grudgingly admitted Ben-Menashe's employment in the intelligence community. But they then retreated to a new cover story: that Ben-Menashe was a "low-level translator" who never traveled on government business.

Key Friends

This cover story was equally implausible and, off-the-record, Israeli officials admitted to me and other skeptical journalists that it wasn't true. The officials acknowledged that the Iranian-born Ben-Menashe had undertaken sensitive missions for Israel, in part because of his proficiency in speaking Farsi and Arabic. One senior military intelligence officer confirmed to me that Ben-Menashe also had operated in then-communist Poland for the Israeli government.

Israel, however, relied on some of its closest allies in the U.S. news media to promote the "low-level translator" story. Steven Emerson, a writer for The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, cited the line repeatedly, adding that his Israeli contacts had shared with him their other claim, that Ben-Menashe was "delusional."

(Emerson's journalistic career suffered a string of embarrassing setbacks in the mid-1990s. After the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, he rushed onto TV news shows and pointed the finger of guilt at Islamic radicals. A subsequent article by investigative reporter Robert I. Friedman disclosed how Emerson had closely coordinated his anti-Arab journalism with hard-line Israeli officials. Likud party leaders even stayed at Emerson's apartment during their frequent trips to Washington. [For details, see The Nation, May 15, 1995])

But in 1991, Emerson and other Ben-Menashe debunkers were riding high. They savaged any American investigator who tried to examine his allegations carefully. In this strategy, Israel was aided by the fact that Ben-Menashe's charges were extremely dangerous as well to then-President George Bush and senior CIA officials, including Robert Gates, who was Bush's choice to become CIA director.

In effect, Ben-Menashe depicted an intelligence coup in 1980, with the CIA conspiring behind President Carter's back to put Ronald Reagan and George Bush, a former CIA director, into power. Ben-Menashe alleged that Bush and Gates played direct roles in the operation, allegations that they vigorously denied. However, at the center of the controversy, known popularly as the "October Surprise" case, was the late William J. Casey, Ronald Reagan's campaign chief in 1980 and then his first CIA director.

Press Attacks

In 1991, these suspicions about Bush's hand in a 1980 intelligence coup were rising as a potentially devastating threat to Bush's re-election which was then considered a very strong bet. Quickly, Bush's many friends at conservative and mainstream publications joined with Israel's influential press allies to put the story down.

In a string of press attacks, Ben-Menashe was inundated with character assassination. The New Republic and my former employers at Newsweek led the way, claiming to have disproved the October Surprise story by establishing alibis for Casey's whereabouts on key days when he was alleged to be meeting with Iranians in Europe. Those alibis would later be disproved, although no official corrections would ever be run. [For details, see my books, Trick or Treason and The October Surprise X-Files.]

Amid the growing controversies around his allegations, Ben-Menashe won acquittal of the criminal charges against him. A jury in New York apparently accepted his legitimacy as an Israeli intelligence officer on a secret mission. Eventually dozens of government officials, other witnesses and documents corroborated additional aspects of Ben-Menashe's allegations.

But Ben-Menashe often undercut his own credibility by over-promising what he could deliver in terms of documents or contacts with high-level officials in the Middle East. Still, his biggest problem appeared to be that he challenged too many powerful interests at once. The acceptance of the October Surprise allegations alone would have destroyed the legitimacy of 12 years of Republican rule, forced investigations into illegal CIA political operations and damaged Israel's image.

Also infuriating the Israelis was Ben-Menashe's account of the highly sensitive Israeli nuclear weapons program. In fall 1986, a former employee at Israel's Dimona nuclear facility, Mordecai Vanunu, divulged secrets of that program to the Sunday Times of London. Israel went to the extraordinary lengths to capture Vanunu in Europe and spirit him back to Israel for imprisonment.

Ben-Menashe touched that same raw nerve when he gave more nuclear details to investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh. Hersh checked and cross-checked Ben-Menashe's story about the Israeli arsenal and Maxwell's espionage role. Initially a strong skeptic about Ben-Menashe, Hersh grew convinced that Ben-Menashe was "golden" -- in Hersh's word -- and included Ben-Menashe's corroborated accounts in The Samson Option, Hersh's 1991 book about Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile.

For doing so, Hersh came under heavy attack from pro-Israeli journalists in the United States and in Great Britain, especially those connected to Maxwell's empire. Despite the furor, Ben-Menashe's accounts published in The Samson Option largely prevailed. After Maxwell's mysterious death at sea off the Canary Islands on Nov. 5, 1991, Maxwell received the rare honor of a burial in Jerusalem's historic Mount of Olives and Hersh won two libel cases brought by Maxwell associates.

Weak Democrats

Still, the smear campaigns against Ben-Menashe took their toll. Weak Democratic leaders -- particularly Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma and Lee Hamilton of Indiana -- caved under Republican pressure. Boren brushed aside Ben-Menashe's testimony and cleared the way for Gates to be confirmed as CIA director. In 1992-93, Hamilton oversaw an October Surprise investigation, which defended Republican innocence by concealing testimony and documentary evidence which pointed toward Reagan-Bush guilt. [See The October Surprise X-Files.]

Meanwhile, Hersh and others who had drawn accurate information from Ben-Menashe retreated under fire. Hersh began calling Ben-Menashe "a liar," presumably because Ben-Menashe had failed to fulfill a promise that he could get a visa for Hersh to travel to Iran. When I've talked with Hersh over the years since then, he has not offered a single example of a substantive factual claim by Ben-Menashe that proved to be false. But like others, Hersh recognized the danger to his career and resented Ben-Menashe's bravado.

On many occasions, I shared Hersh's frustration with Ben-Menashe's behavior. The ex-Israeli agent sometimes dangled promises of more documents and then failed to deliver. But I was unable to disprove conclusively any of his substantive allegations, even when they first sounded highly implausible to me.

But the calumny heaped upon those who fairly examined these questions was so extraordinary that nearly everyone backed off or suffered great harm. Gary Sick, a serious scholar of U.S.-Iran relations who would have been in line for a senior State Department job under President Clinton, was turned into a political pariah for his conclusion that the October Surprise allegations were true. [See Gary Sick's book, October Surprise.]

PBS Frontline, which recruited me to report two documentaries on the issue, became a whipping boy for conservatives who cited those programs as a justification for slashing the PBS budget.

As individuals scrambled to salvage their careers and reputations, the integrity of the historical record crumbled. Ironically, the Democrats most responsible for the collapse -- Hamilton and Boren -- earned kudos for their "bipartisanship" and "conscience."

Another Chance

But there was still a chance for the truth to emerge in the early years of the Clinton administration. Along two separate tracks, Iranian government emissaries sought out contacts with the Clinton newcomers. Primarily, these emissaries wanted to test out the possibility of improved U.S.-Iranian relations and possibly gain release of Iranian assets frozen since 1979.

As part of those overtures, the Iranian emissaries informed the White House that the long-denied stories about a Republican-Iranian deal in 1980 were true. Sources close to the White House told me that this information was delivered directly to President Clinton. But Clinton turned his back on the overtures because hard documentary evidence was lacking and because of continued concerns about the Iranian government's support for international terrorism.

(One Clinton source identified Kamal Kharrazi as part of this Iranian initiative. Kharrazi then was Iranian representative to the United Nations, but he is now foreign minister under Iran's new, more moderate government.)

Though official Washington seems to have little interest in fixing old political and journalistic errors, some early history books of the era accept the October Surprise story as fact. Peter Bourne's Jimmy Carter biography, published this year, describes the Republican sabotage almost matter-of-factly.

Bourne recounts an interview with Bassam Abu Sharif, a top aide to Yasir Arafat, describing a request from "a senior Reagan advisor" who flew to Lebanon in July 1980 seeking Arafat's "influence in Tehran to delay the [hostage] release until after the election."

(In 1996, Arafat confirmed this account in a private meeting with Carter, according to the scholarly journal, Diplomatic History, Fall 1996. Later, the ex-president confirmed to me that Arafat had supplied the information about the Republican operation.)

On another front, Bourne adds that Casey "had established his own channels to Tehran through relationships in the French intelligence community." Those contacts permitted Casey to open up direct negotiations with Iranians in Europe.

These European intelligence figures "were professional operatives who not only had the necessary international contacts and were coldbloodedly involved in breaking of governments through clandestine deals and furtive manipulation, they were also people who could keep secrets even if it meant perjuring themselves."

Bourne also cites an obvious motive for CIA officers to help in the plot. "Carter was widely disliked [by them] while Casey and Reagan's vice presidential nominee, George Bush, were considered members of the club," Bourne notes.

In Israel, Bourne writes, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had concluded that Carter would lose and began "to cover Israel's bets surreptitiously with the Republicans." Explaining why the 1992-93 congressional inquiry rejected the October Surprise allegations, Bournes adds that the members of Congress lacked "definitive evidence" and may have feared that a full investigation would "reveal far greater involvement of Israel than had already come to light."

Brzezinski's View

In an interview, Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me that the Carter White House was well aware that the Begin government had "an obvious preference for a Reagan victory." That animosity could be traced back to Carter's opposition to Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

David Kimche, a senior Begin aide and former Mossad official, has corroborated Brzezinski's point. "Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington," Kimche wrote about Israeli concerns for a second Carter term, when the president would be freed from the electoral pressures of the American Jewish community. [See Kimche's book, The Last Option.]

Despite the shifting assessments of historians, Ben-Menashe remained the odd man out. Angry about his disclosures, Israel subjected him to years of harassment. As he shuttled from country to country, he always feared sudden deportation to Israel -- the Vanunu option -- or worse. He finally settled in Montreal, married a Canadian woman and obtained Canadian citizenship. Now in his late 40s, he works for an international commodities broker and tries to put the controversies of the 1980s behind him.

But the attempted murder of Khaled Meshal offers a reminder of how far Israel is prepared to go when its security interests are threatened -- and how hard it is to know the history even when it happens right before our eyes. ~

Copyright (c) 1997

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