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The Daring Attack That Blew Up in Israel's Face

By Alan Cowell

New York Times, October 15, 1997


Over many years, it has been an open secret in the Middle East that Israel and Jordan have quietly cooperated on a host of covert projects. And so, diplomats here say, King Hussein was not surprised on Sept. 25 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to ask that he immediately meet Israel's chief spymaster.

Danni Yatom, the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, was a frequent, if unheralded, visitor to Amman, according to the diplomats. The King assumed he would be discussing a new peace overture relating to Hamas, the radical Palestinian Islamic group, which had taken responsibility for two devastating suicide-bombings in Jerusalem over the summer.

Mr. Yatom had considerably grimmer news to convey, according to an account of his meeting provided by Israeli and Jordanian officials. Only three or four hours earlier, he told the King, an Israeli operation to assassinate Khaled Meshal, a Hamas political figure, had gone awry on the streets of Amman. Two Israeli agents posing as Canadian visitors were in a Jordanian jail and Mr. Yatom wanted the King's cooperation in getting them freed.

No one in Jordan had thought to inform the King about the attack because the situation on the ground was still confused. But a great many people had seen the confused brawl, and word about it was spreading.

Mr. Yatom's pre-emptive disclosure and plea for help exploded in Israel's hands: They brought Israel's relationship with Jordan to its lowest point since the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91, ruptured the decades-old covert intelligence relationship and, King Hussein has said publicly, threatened to scuttle the entire peace process.

The damage to Israel's vaunted spy service has been particularly acute. Not only was Israel forced to disclose information about what it said was a new assassination technique -- believed to be based on a synthetic opiate called Fentanyl -- but more importantly, for several years the Mossad spy agency had been quietly allowed to keep an office in Amman, and now Jordan has thrown it out.

Jordanians who are close to the King say he was aghast at Mr. Yatom's news, and rejected his plea out of hand. ''He felt he had been stabbed in the back,'' said a participant in the high-stakes diplomacy that followed. ''He was furious.''

As the ruler of a country with a restive Palestinian majority, Jordanians and diplomats who dealt with him at that time said, the King felt he had done more than any other Arab leader to help his Israeli neighbors.

His intelligence service had worked closely and secretly with Israel and the West, sometimes at considerable risk. The lines of communication to Mossad had been kept open through many turbulent years. More than any other Arab leader, he had sought to deepen the three-year-old peace with Israel far beyond, say, Israel's cold peace with Egypt.

And yet, Israel had dispatched assassins to his capital for a killing in broad daylight with a mysterious chemical -- an act that risked undermining the King's legitimacy and that of his Hashemite dynasty as the guarantors of peace and stability in the kingdom.

More than that, the King was now being asked to help Israel escape the consequences.

''What the Israelis did touched an extremely sensitive spot in the King's psyche,'' said Radwan Abdullah, a respected political scientist. ''It seemed as if it was was a challenge to the King personally.''

Netanyahu Makes A Late-Night Flight

Interviews with diplomats, Jordanian and Israeli officials and witnesses to the bungled assassination provide a much fuller picture than hitherto publicized of Mossad's most embarrassing public failure in decades -- one in which the fallout for Israel has been enormous.

Immediately after the attack, the King ordered Mossad to close its base of operations here, and he has expelled the two or three agents who worked out of the Israeli Embassy with Jordanian permission, according to Israeli officials and diplomats.

According to Jordanian officials, the agents were on permanent station here, though their presence was never publicly acknowledged. Their job was to maintain contact with the Jordanian security service to prevent any of Israel's Arab adversaries from using Jordan as a launch pad or transit route for terrorism. This was in Jordan's own interest, since such attacks could draw reprisals onto Jordan itself.

According to Jordanian and Israeli officials, Mr. Netanyahu was obliged to fly here in the middle of the night four days after the attack to assume blame and apologize to the King's brother, Crown Prince Hassan. King Hussein refused to meet him.

Only when Israel provided a full accounting of how the attack had been carried out did the King agree to discuss the release of a reported eight Mossad agents who came from Israel to carry out the attack -- the two who were in jail, four who were holed up in the Israeli embassy and two more cornered at the Intercontinental Hotel, according to diplomats.

The days of wrangling drew in President Clinton as a major mediator, and Israel was eventually forced to release Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Hamas movement. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu came under strong American pressure to release additional scores of Hamas prisoners because the King was threatening a total breach of relations, the closure of the Israeli Embassy and a public trial by military court of the two Israeli agents, according to participants in the negotiations.

''Did we get to the brink?'' said Crown Prince Hassan in an interview at the Royal Palace last Sunday. ''Yes, we got to the brink.''

The exact nature of the toxin used to attack Mr. Meshal, who now appears fully recovered, is a closely-guarded secret here and in Israel. But according to accounts by people closely involved in the subsequent arm-twisting, who insisted on anonymity, Israel eventually told Jordan that the assailants had used a high-tech and previously unknown delivery system to blast a fatal overdose of a synthetic opiate called Fentanyl through his skin.

The delivery system remains a mystery: Jordanian officials insist that no device was found, and diplomats were left to speculate that it was perhaps some form of miniaturized gas canister that the assailants abandoned in a getaway car whose driver sped off after the assailants jumped out. The drug is in wide use in anesthesiology, usually in small controlled doses to control pain. But it is said to be 50 to 100 times more powerful by weight than morphine and an overdose is usually fatal, according to doctors in Europe.

An Offer to Mediate And Then the Attack

According to those physicians, the drug can be given orally, by injection or through the skin in what is called transdermal delivery. The body metabolizes it quickly -- meaning that traces of it in Mr. Meshal would likely have dispersed rapidly.

Mr. Netanyahu is thought to have authorized the operation in reprisal for a Hamas suicide-bombing in Jerusalem on July 30 that killed 16 Israelis. His rationale was that, as an Israeli statement put it, Mr. Meshal was ''the pre-eminent figure in Hamas and responsible for the murder of innocent Israeli civilians.'' Yet, by many Jordanian and Western accounts, Mr. Meshal limits his activities to what a diplomat called low-level ''propaganda and rhetoric,'' and it is the Hamas military wing based in Damascus that is held responsible for planning suicide bombings.

The timing also seemed odd. Only two days before the attempt, Jordan transmitted to Israel what it described as an offer to mediate with Hamas for a moratorium on suicide bombings, according to diplomats and King Hussein himself in a speech last week.

According to Hamas and Jordanian officials, moreover, Hamas officials here operate under tight control by Jordan's pervasive intelligence service, whose principal task is to insure that Jordan is not used as a launch pad for terrorism.

Nonetheless, in mid-September eight Mossad agents infiltrated Jordan, at least two of them with forged Canadian passports, according to diplomats.

At 10 A.M. on Thursday, Sept. 25, the two assigned to carry out the hit moved into position around Mr. Meshal's suburban home and tailed him in their green Hyundai rental car, according to accounts pieced together from interviews with Hamas, Jordanian and Israeli officials, diplomats, witnesses and Mr. Meshal himself. Four more Mossad agents were deployed around Mr. Meshal's office, either as drivers or as lookouts, diplomats said. And two -- one a doctor carrying an antidote known as Narcan or Naloxone, in case the attack misfired -- holed up at the Intercontinental Hotel.

When the Hamas official arrived outside his office building, according to Mr. Meshal's driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity, a man advanced toward Mr. Meshal and then lunged toward the area around his left ear. The Mossad agent's hand, the driver said, was wrapped in a white bandage, with a small lead-colored protuberance in the palm.

''I felt a loud noise in my ear,'' Mr. Meshal said in an interview at a Hamas house here. ''It was like a boom, like an electric shock. Then I had shivering sensation in my body like an electric shock.''

Within two hours he had begun to vomit and was heading for respiratory collapse. According to Ismael el-Faridi, a clothing store owner who saw the attack, the two Israelis ran off after a struggle with the driver and with Mr. Meshal's bodyguard, Mohammed Abu Saif, 30.

In interviews published in Arabic-language newspapers, Mr. Abu Saif said he pursued the Israelis on foot some 200 yards to their Hyundai, which started moving even before the two agents leaped in.

At that point, Mr. Abu Saif said, he kept up the chase by flagging down a taxi. Within half a mile, the Israelis left the Hyundai and traveled on foot across a vacant lot. Mr. Abu Saif said he ran them to ground and wrestled one down an embankment. People gathered, one of them a plain-clothes officer, and the Israelis were arrested. Four other members of the Mossad backup team fled to the heavily-guarded Israeli Embassy, Israeli officials have acknowledged.

The messy end of the assassination attempt, though, was only the beginning of four days of high-stakes diplomacy and arm-twisting. The initial focus was Mr. Meshal's ever-worsening condition.

For two days, King Hussein insisted that if Mr. Meshal died -- or if Israel did not identify the substance used in the attack -- there would be reprisals including the closure of Israel's embassy and a public trial for the two captured agents.

Israeli officials still stonewalled. Only after King Hussein called President Clinton for help two days after the attack did Israel agree to identify the drug it used, according to Jordanian officials. Mr. Meshal has said he began recovering on Sept. 27.

But the crisis was far from over: there was the issue of the captured Israelis and the price King Hussein would exact for their release.

The Apology: 'Most Bizarre'

Speaking through intermediaries, King Hussein insisted angrily on Sunday, Sept. 28, that the captured agents could be put on trial unless Israel released Sheik Yassin and 60 or 70 Hamas prisoners.

''Netanyahu was categorically opposed,'' said a participant in the talks. But Washington was pressing for the crisis to be defused. By late Sunday the deal began to take shape.

Sheik Yassin was flown to Jordan on Oct. 1, after serving eight years of a life sentence for conspiring to kidnap Israeli soldiers. He returned in triumph to the Gaza strip.

Under strong Jordanian and American pressure, Mr. Netanyahu also committed himself to freeing scores more Hamas adversaries. In return, Jordan allowed the Mossad operatives to leave the country.

Finally, there was the apology. At 1:30 A.M. on Sept. 29, Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived in Amman to apologize and pledge that the attempt would not be repeated, Jordanian officials and Western diplomats said. King Hussein sent his brother to meet him. ''It was one of the most bizarre things that ever happened to me,'' Crown Prince Hassan said.



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