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News Analysis: Israel Recoils After Mossad Bungles Operation in Jordan

It was supposed to be a quiet week of introspection during the Days of Awe.

But Israelis found themselves dealing with a disturbing situation during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Not only had Israel’s famed Mossad secret service reportedly botched an assassination attempt in neighboring Jordan.

But also, perhaps worse, the failure triggered a slew of internal recriminations — instead of the instinctive, patriotic rallying-around- the- Israeli-government that usually occurs in the wake of such embarrassing episodes.

The political opposition did not even wait for Jordan to release two alleged Mossad operatives before demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And the various defense and intelligence agencies lost no time in flinging mud at each other while washing their hands clean of the matter.

The affair, which strained the Jewish state’s relations with two of its allies, Jordan and Canada, overshadowed the resumption of the long-suspended Israeli- Palestinian peace talks as well as the visit to Washington this week of Israeli President Ezer Weizman.

But the affair was bound to affect the peace process and the Palestinian political scene, as Israel freed from prison a key Hamas figure in order to secure the release of the two assailants captured in Amman after the failed assassination attempt.

Netanyahu, breaking his own silence on the affair at an internationally televised news conference Monday, said Israeli policy is to fight terrorism everywhere.

While he did not explicitly refer to the Amman attack, Netanyahu announced the creation of a government committee “to clarify the events that happened in Jordan.”

Netanyahu spoke out a day after his Cabinet issued a statement referring to Khaled Mashaal, a senior Hamas official in Amman who was the target of the bungled Sept. 25 attack, as the “number one figure in Hamas,” adding that Israel has an obligation “to defend the rights of its citizens and to fight terror without compromise.”

While the domestic political fallout will await the findings of the investigative committee, most commentators here believe the prime minister will survive this episode, as he has survived other difficulties during his 16 months in office.

An opinion poll published Monday by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv had a majority of the public faulting Netanyahu’s performance, but a similar number opposed his resigning over the affair.

The chief danger to Netanyahu’s standing at home is thought to stem from Danny Yatom, the head of Mossad.

Over the Rosh Hashanah weekend, reports were published abroad to the effect that Yatom had advised against the move, but that he had been ordered by Netanyahu to go ahead with the assassination plan.

The order was given despite the obvious political and strategic risks involved, given Jordan’s pivotal position as Israel’s closest, some would say only, friend in the Arab world, and the decades-long discreet defense relationship between the Hashemite kingdom and the Jewish state.

But Yatom helped Netanyahu out of a dangerous position, letting it be known Sunday that the original idea to target Mashaal, developed in the wake of the July 30 double suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, had come from Mossad to the prime minister and not the other way around.

Reports apparently emanating from Yatom or those close to him went further, insisting that other security agencies and other ministers had been apprised of the plan before the final OK was given.

These reports elicited immediate denials and angry denunciations from various departments and agencies, all anxious to distance themselves from the searing failure of the Amman attack and its possible political consequences.

The fallout from the affair took a dramatic turn Oct. 1, when Hamas co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin was released from an Israeli prison and flown by helicopter to Jordan.

Israel’s decision to free Yassin was part of a deal for the release of the two Israeli agents who apparently carried out the attack against Mashaal. The two arrived at an undisclosed Israeli airstrip Monday minutes before a helicopter carrying Yassin touched down in the Gaza Strip.

Yassin, one of the Palestinians’ most revered figures, received a boisterous welcome from his followers.

As part of its deal with Jordan, Israel also set free 20 Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners, and Israel Radio reported that another 50 prisoners could be released soon.

Netanyahu’s point man during the period of delicate behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Jordan after the failed attack on Mashaal was National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, who apparently came out the winner, in terms of domestic Israeli politics, from the unfortunate affair.

Netanyahu apparently turned to Sharon when the full dimensions of the disaster became clear.

The prime minister reportedly took Sharon, along with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and other officials, with him on an urgent initial visit to Amman after the Mashaal attack was botched.

Jordan’s King Hussein, enraged at Israel’s invasion of his sovereignty, reportedly threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

His fury was allayed by the prospect of his emerging from the affair as the liberator of Yassin, who has been languishing in an Israeli jail since 1989 despite many appeals to win his release.

Sharon took over the handling of the difficult negotiations with Hussein, who expressed in a weekend newspaper interview his outrage over the affair.

There is a profound irony here, since Sharon, more than any other Israeli military or political figure, was long seen in Jordan as the country’s most ominous threat.

It was he, after all, who for many years during the 1970s and 1980s propagated the “Jordan is Palestine” thesis, which was predicated on the eventual overthrow of Hussein by a Palestinian uprising.

The Jordanian leadership, in fact, interpreted the 1982 Lebanon War, which was inspired and largely led by then-Defense Minister Sharon, as an Israeli effort to force the Palestine Liberation Organization, then ensconced in Lebanon, to move back to Jordan and oust the Hashemites.

But time has changed perspectives on all sides.

“I’m not a fan of Netanyahu,” Sharon was quoted as saying Monday. “But the situation is very grave and I have to help him.”

The incident also soured relations between Israel and Canada, after it was reported that Mashaal’s two assailants had carried Canadian passports. Canada temporarily recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations

Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s minister for foreign affairs, said Monday that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy had expressed to him Israel’s “very deep regret” over the incident.

In the Arab world, the big winners emerging from the affair are Hamas in general and Yassin in particular.

Indeed, it is ironic, too, that just as both Hussein and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat were responding to American pressures by cracking down on Hamas activists on their respective sides of the Jordan River, the assassination attempt raised the stock of the fundamentalist movement in Jordan, in the Palestinian territories and throughout the Arab world.

Arafat, who was entirely left out of the negotiations for Yassin’s release, visited the sheik in Jordan over the weekend.

But the Palestinian leader, always wary of the fundamentalist challenge to his prestige, was conspicuously absent during Yassin’s triumphant return to Gaza.

It remains to be seen whether Yassin’s freedom will have the effect of moderating his movement’s actions.

Yassin gave conflicting indications of where he stands during interviews this week.

But others in Hamas have sworn violent revenge for the attempt on Mashaal’s life.

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