Did Israeli intelligence have an agent in Syria who supplied details of the travel plans of Fathi Shkaki, the leader of Islamic Jihad, enabling Mossad agents to shoot him dead in Malta last October?
The Israeli press has been considering a story in a US news magazine about how Mossad had recruited a Palestinian student in Bulgaria four years ago. He allegedly joined Islamic Jihad, whose leadership is based in Damascus, and became a friend of Shkaki. He gave details of the timing of Shkaki's last trip and the false name on his Libyan passport.
The student was supposedly controlled by a second Mossad agent, a businessman who lived in Cyprus but visited Syria regularly. Both were captured after the assassination.
The article in US News and World Report says the incident influenced Hafez al-Assad, the President of Syria, in his decision not to attend the "summit of peacemakers" in Sharm el-Sheikh last week.
There are a number of flaws in the story. Despite the fact he must have known Mossad was looking for him, Shkaki madelittle effort to conceal his whereabouts. He had just come from Libya, closely watched by all intelligence services, and he had just checked into a hotel in Malta where he had stayed before. He had gone shoppingwhen he was killed.
The death of Shkaki was rapidly forgotten in Israel because Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, was himself killed by an assassin in the following month. But in retrospect it may have started the train of events which ended when the first of four suicide bombs, which killed 62 people, exploded on 25 February. Three of the bombs were claimed by Hamas, but the fourth in Tel Aviv was the work of Islamic Jihad.
The assassination of Shkaki - and Yahyah Ayyash, the chief Hamas bombmaker, in January - is relevant because the Israeli response to the suicide bombs is still unclear.
A new head of Mossad, Brigadier General Dani Yatom, has been appointed and his identity for the first time revealed. He will be responsiblefor pursuing Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders abroad.
If there is a fresh round of assassinations the militant Islamic groups will respond with more suicide bombs. Advisers to Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, are already gloomy about their chances of winning the election on 29 May. Another suicide bomb would probably end all hopes.
At the same time Mr Peres wants to look and sound tough. In cabinet last Sunday he called for the deportation of Hamas members and their families. For the first time he attacked Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, for not pursuing Hamas wholeheartedly.
But posing as "Mr Security" is not a role in which Mr Peres, the architect of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, is comfortable. It also has electoral dangers of its own. By closing down an Islamic charity in Nazareth he has angered Israeli Arab leaders. This is serious because the election may hinge on how many Israeli Arabs vote for Mr Peres.
The assassinations of Shkaki and Ayyash gave a fillip to the government's popularity. But the lesson of the past month is that the elimination of leaders does not stop suicide bombers.Reuse content