Mossad's blunder strikes a raw nerve

Stephanie Nolen in Amman and Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem on a bizarre assassination attempt
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Israeli agents almost got away with their plan to poison Khalid Meshal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, the Islamic militant group, with a delayed-action nerve gas. Had they escaped, Israel could have successfully denied involvement when Mr Meshal died.

The plan failed because one of Mr Meshal's bodyguards, Mohammed Abu Seif, pursued the two attackers on foot through the crowded streets of Amman, the Jordanian capital. He lost them, but against all the odds came across them 20 minutes later walking casually in the street after they had dumped their getaway car. He tackled them and, despite being so badly beaten over the head with a rock that he needed 18 stitches, clung on until passers- by came to his aid.

The result of the bodyguard's action is that Israel was forced last week to hand back Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, to mollify an infuriated King Hussein, Jordan's ruler. By so doing it torpedoed its own policy of demanding that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, arrest all Hamas activists and close down Hamas-run institutions and social services.

The use of a bizarre weapon like nerve gas, presumably employed so that Mr Meshal's death would be attributed to natural causes, has had exactly the opposite effect of dramatising the assassination attempt. In this respect the episode is similar to the use by Bulgarian intelligence of umbrellas with poisoned tips over a decade ago. King Hussein is said by the Israeli press to have demanded in a phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, that he arrange for Jordanian doctors to be supplied with the antidote to the gas.

The assassination attempt was made early in the morning on 25 September, when Mr Abu Seif was escorting Mr Meshal into his office. As he did so two "foreign-looking" men rushed up behind them. One had a white cloth covering his left hand, apparently containing a metal instrument, which he tried to press to Mr Meshal's face. His bodyguard, driver and three of his sons fought back, but the two men got away in a waiting car.

So far the attackers were clear. Mr Meshal and his sons went to a police station to report the incident. The bodyguard pursued the car on foot, but lost it. Then, by pure chance, he saw them, walking in a busy street only three blocks from the original attack.

Mr Abu Seif ran after the men and tackled them, clinging on even as one pounded his head with a stone. He shouted: "Help me hold them. They are assassins." Eventually they were subdued. Omar Abu Rozeh, an onlooker, said Mr Abu Seif borrowed his mobile phone. "He told me he had caught the men who had tried to kill the Haj [leader], and that he was going to the police station, and that he thought they might be Israelis."

"The guard foiled the whole thing," says Morawid Tell, a former adviser to King Hussein and now a political analyst. "Without him, the Israelis would have killed Mr Meshal and they could have blamed it on Yasser Arafat, who is already cracking down on Hamas."

The strange nature of the attack led to incredulity at first. But as Mr Meshal became seriously ill and had to be put on a respirator to enable him to breathe, King Hussein began to realise that Mr Netanyahu had authorised an assassination attempt in his own capital by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. This was despite the King signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 - one that has become increasingly unpopular with Jordanians.

Six days after the attack Mr Netanyahu handed over Sheikh Yassin. A quadraplegic since a sporting accident at the age of 12, he was serving a life sentence for founding Hamas and ordering bomb attacks. His return was said to be a peace gesture and a result of his failing health, but the Israeli media tore holes in the official version. Canada, meanwhile, was enraged by Mossad's use of forged Canadian passports, and on Thursday night ordered home its ambassador for consultations.

In Amman, despite the return of Sheikh Yassin, the attack has made the treaty even more unpopular. "The public is not pleased by the King's manoeuvre," says Dr Radwan Abdullah, a political scientist at Jordan University. "They see it as a fake, as a cheap public relations move that was found, probably by the Americans, for him to save face." In the long term he believes that if the King "is prudent, and ultimately he always is, he will gradually freeze the peace with Israel, just like the Egyptians did".

Will this worry Mr Netanyahu? The messages are contradictory. The fact that he was willing to authorise an attack on Hamas in Amman appears to show that he does not value friendship with Jordan highly. On the other hand, the release of Sheikh Yassin looks like an act of panic after the King had reportedly threatened to break diplomatic relations. One explanation may be that he does not think more than 24 hours ahead.

The Prime Minister has been saved so far from criticism at home because Israel is on holiday for the Jewish New Year and the approaching Day of Atonement, and no newspapers are appearing. He may not have to pay too heavy a price in terms of domestic opinion: after all, the attack was on a senior official of an organisation which has been blowing up Israeli civilians in suicide attacks.

Internationally, the debacle in Amman may be more damaging. The air of irresponsibility in this latest escapade is likely to confirm the doubts about his judgment which have existed since he took office. The same is true in the Israeli establishment and in the media, but so far Mr Netanyahu has shown that he can survive their onslaughts. Never- theless, Israel is paying a considerable price for the dogged and successful pursuit of its agents by Mohammed Abu Seif.