Benjamin Netanyahu defended himself yesterday against the allegation that two weeks ago he over-ruled Danny Yatom, the head of Mossad, and ordered him to assassinate a Hamas leader in Amman. He is said to have wanted the operation, which the Mossad chief in Jordan also advised against, as "a holiday gift" for Israel.
Defending itself against a mounting storm of criticism the government said yesterday that the security and intelligence chiefs make recommendations to the prime minister and not the reverse. Mr Yatom may well be forced to resign whatever the details of what happened. Mr Netanyahu will probably survive, but with a damaged reputation.
Israel expects Jordan to hand back the two Mossad agents held in Amman, but King Hussein may want the release of more Palestinian prisoners in Israel in addition to Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who was freed last week. The Jordanian press says that King Hussein last week sent his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, to show President Clinton in Washington a video of the confessions of the captured Mossad agents.
Sheikh Yassin, whose health seems much better than suggested by first reports, says he plans to leave Jordan and return to Gaza today. "God willing, tomorrow we are heading for Gaza," he said in a telephone interview from his hospital bed in Amman, where he has been treated since he was freed last Wednesday from an Israeli jail.
The damage to Mr Netanyahu is likely to be greater than from previous scandals because the abortive assassination will have serious long-term affects. Whatever their feelings about the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Israelis like the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. King Hussein now says that, after the assassination attempt, he feels as if somebody "had spat in his face."
The release of Sheikh Yassin will make it very difficult for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to meet Israel's demand for arrest of Hamas activists. The fact that Israel was forced to release Sheikh Yassin, rather than doing so voluntary, has increased his prestige and that of Hamas as a whole. Mossad's reputation, in contrast, has been badly damaged.
The Israeli press is highly critical of Mr Netanyahu's alleged behaviour in the affair. Hemi Shalev in the daily Ma'ariv says the assassination plan looks as it was taken from "the script of [the film] Pulp Fiction." He says that at first nobody believed accounts of what had happened in Amman because "it hardly seemed plausible that any rational person in Israel would authorise an operation which reflects a complete lack of judgement."