by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
Israel's botched attempt to assassinate an official of the Palestinian Hamas movement on 25 September in Amman, Jordan has changed the Mideast's political landscape, brought worldwide condemnation down on Israel, and shows dramatically why state-sponsored murder is best avoided.
Assassination is always a tricky, dangerously unpredictable, business. So concluded the best minds in US intelligence a decade ago. Israel's floundering prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just learned this important lesson.
You don't send out assassins without first asking, `what happens if the attempt fails?' Mossad is probably the world's ablest intelligence service. Even so, some operations are bound by the law of averages to go awry.
The attack on Khalid Meshal by five or six Israeli agents disguised as Canadian tourists looked like of a rushed mission mounted without Mossad's usual meticulous preparation, suggesting someone high up ordered an immediate hit.
Why was a not-so-important Hamas political official targeted? The Israeli press says Meshal was not even involved in previous Hamas bombings. Why not go after hard core Hamas bombers instead?
One easily sympathizes with the Israeli government's desire to take drastic action to counter terrorism. Israel has been shocked and terrified by Hamas suicide bombers blowing up Jewish civilians. The public demanded action.
But what would killing Meshal have accomplished? His murder would certainly have triggered new Hamas bombings. Had the Mossad assassins gotten away with killing Meshal by an unknown poison injected into his ear that apparently left no trace, who would have known of Israel's revenge? How many other Mideast figure have been killed by Mossad's invisible venom? If Arafat dies of natural causes, will Israel be blamed - and bombed?
As a democracy, civilized society and military superpower, Israel should not be running a Mideast version of Murder Inc. To see how wrong this policy is, put the shoe on the other foot.
Last year, a UN investigation found Israel specifically shelled the Qana refugee camp in south Lebanon which was packed with families of Hizbullah guerillas. Over 100 Lebanese civilians, women and children, were killed. They died as surely and bloodily from Israeli 155mm shells as did Jews from nail-packed Hamas bombs.
Does Lebanon's government have the right under Israel's eye for an eye policy to send hit teams to kill Israeli generals and officials who authorized the Qana attack? Can Palestinians go after Israeli officers who used anti-personnel cluster bombs and napalm against refugee camps? Can Lebanon rightfully assassinate Israel's Gen. Ariel Sharon, who, in 1982, ordered the invasion of Lebanon, and massive shelling of Beirut that killed 15,700 Lebanese civilians?
Two days before attempting to kill Meshal, Israel apparently received a message from Hamas offering a 10-year cease fire in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and ending Jewish settlements. Netanyahu claims he only got this exceptionally important message after the botched assassination. His supporters blame Mossad chief Danny Yatom for sitting on the message. Yatom denies it.
This is part of a furious battle of leaks raging between Mossad and Netanyahu's cabinet. Some Netanyahu supporters claim the Mossad hit was a rogue operation never authorized by the prime minister.
Mossad partisans leak back that it was all Netanyahu's harebrained idea - and that he's now trying to make Mossad chief Yatom fall guy for the fiasco. Other critics say a hard-line cabal inside Mossad is determined to thwart any peace with Palestinians - which is likely true.
All this finger-pointing looks like the beginning of a second Lavon Affaire. In 1954-55, Israel sought to sabotage warming relations between the US and Nasser's Egypt. Israeli intelligence recruited Egyptian Jews and ordered them to plant bombs in US libraries and cinemas showing American films.
The agents were caught and hanged. A huge scandal erupted in Israel. The government claimed it was a rogue operation run by defense minister, Pinhas Lavon. He insisted it was ordered by the government. Lavon was sacked. To this day the affaire remains shrouded in mystery. Debate over the Amman fiasco will probably also rage on for years.
Meanwhile, the failed plot has ignited a train of strange events. To take divert blame from Israel, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel endangered his countrymen's lives by suggesting Canada was involved in the plot.
In another bizarre twist, while publically ordering Arafat to keep arresting Hamas members, Netanyahu freed from prison Hamas founder Sheik Yassin, and 70 other Hamas 'terrorists' in order to get his Mossad assassins back from Jordanian custody.
Palestinians, enraged by Netanyahu's crude sabotage of the peace process and economic punishments, see the increasingly unpopular Arafat as an American-Israeli stooge. Half now support Hamas.
Netanyahu's blunders have suddenly transformed Hamas into a major, even legitimate political player. Small wonder Netanyahu and Arafat have resumed talks. They've been scared into each others unloving arms by surging Hamas. A horrified Netanyahu may even find he's created a sort of Palestinian Khomeini.
A nice irony, since Israel helped found Hamas in the 1980's to rival the PLO.
Netanyahu came to power by claiming he would give Israel security. What he's given, so far, is a deepening mess and the threat of much more bloodshed.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]