Cock-up and Conspiracy: Bibi Netanyahu's failed bid to emulate King Claudius

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, may be the first political leader since Hamlet's uncle Claudius to try to kill one of his enemies by putting poison in his ear. Neither attempt had a happy outcome, though Claudius's assasination bid was the better planned, since he waited until his victim was asleep. The Israeli leader, for his part, gave the go-ahead for a plan by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, to kill Khalid Meshal, a Hamas leader, by injecting a slow acting, but deadly poison, into his ear as he entered his office in Amman, Jordan.

Almost immediately it all went disastrously wrong. Mr Meshal is injected, but his bodyguard doggedly pursues and captures two Mossad agents, disguised as Canadian tourists. Suddenly the exotic poison does not seem such a good idea after all. An angry King Hussein, Israel's best friend in the Arab world, later said that if Mr Meshal had died he would have put the Mossad men on trial and, if found guilty, hanged them.

To avoid this happening Mr Netanyahu decides to send an antidote to the poison to Jordan to be administered to the Hamas leader, the preservation of whose life has suddenly become an Israeli priority. But King Hussein is now in a thoroughly suspicious mood. How does he know that Mr Netanyahu has really sent him the antidote? "He is an impossible man to deal with," he complains to President Clinton, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "He sent a syringe, but I don't know if it was more poison."

King Hussein wants the original formula for the poison to be on the safe side. But now there is a further problem. Mr Netanyahu says that the formula is "an Israeli national asset". He will not give it up. Only when further representations are made by President Clinton does Israel identify the poison. Mr Meshal, whose chances were put by an Israeli official at 50:50, lives and the Israeli government breathes a collective sigh of relief, suggesting some flaws in the original plan to kill him.

In retrospect it all looks so frivolous. A child could see that if the operation went right the benefits to Israel were marginal. Mr Meshal is not a senior figure in Hamas. But if the plan went wrong then Israel would have offended and weakened King Hussein, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 that is deeply unpopular among his own people. Now Israel was treating him with contempt.

One senior member of Likud, Mr Netanyahu's own party, commented pointedy on the juvenile quality of his leader's decision-making by referring to the Bible and, in particular, to Ecclesiastes, chapter 10, verse 16, which reads: "Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning."

Almost obscured by the absurdities and dramas of the assassination attempt is that it caused Mr Netanyahu to reverse the most central of his government's policies. For a year he has insisted that Yasser Arafat arrest members of Hamas, as the instigators of suicide bomb attacks. Again and again in briefings, private and public, Israeli officials would demand that Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority, close down "the infrastructure" of Hamas, its social services on which some 60,000 poorer Gazans rely. Until this was done, Mr Netanyahu said, there would be no progress in implementing the Oslo agreement, no further withdrawals from the West Bank.

It is this policy plank that has now been effectively abandoned, without most Israelis noticing it. By releasing Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas, in order to get back the two captured Mossad agents, Mr Netanyahu has undercut his own demand for Mr Arafat to crush Hamas politically and militarily. Even if the Palestinian leader wanted to do it, he no longer has the political strength to act.

Why did Mr Netanyahu abandon this policy so fecklessly? It may be that he simply regarded it as a way not to implement the Oslo accords, which he did not like anyway. It may also be that he never thinks more than a few days ahead. But there is another development, which he could not have predicted. Suddenly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a major new player: Sheikh Yassin.

It is not just that he is out of prison; he is acquiring real political stature. He was said to be at death's door and he has not been able to move his arms and legs since a sporting accident as a teenager. But Israelis and Palestinians forgot that these disabilities did not stop him becoming the most powerful religious figure in Gaza before he was jailed for life in 1989. Since Sheikh Yassin's release from prison he has done nothing but give carefully-worded and forceful interviews. The press still talks of the "spiritual leader of Hamas", but it is becoming clear that he will be far more than that.

Typically, Jordanians and Palestinians are not convinced that the so- called Meshal affair was a spectacular Israeli bungle. Could it not be a subtle attempt by Israel to set King Hussein and Mr Arafat at each other's throats? Why, for instance, did Israel ignore a note from King Hussein saying Hamas was interested in a ceasefire, sent to Mr Netanyahu two days before the ceasefire ? The answer is most probably sheer incompetence, but this is unlikely to pass muster in the Arab world.

Mr Arafat's suspicions were also stirred. Nothing makes Palestinians more angry than fear of a dirty deal between Jordan and Israel to do them out of their national rights. Now Mr Arafat could see Mr Netanyahu handing over, with maximum publicity, Sheikh Yassin to King Hussein. Links between Jordan and Hamas have been strengthened. Could not Jordan be secretly trying to get back the West Bank, which it lost to Israeli armies in 1967.

These fears surfaced at a Palestinian cabinet meeting in Gaza last week- end at which Mr Arafat and his ministers vented their rage. Such was the volume of yelling that the presidential guard, to prevent journalists waiting outside the doors from hearing what was being said, asked them to move into the courtyard. But even there furious voices could be overheard. In desperation the guards told the drivers of the cars carrying Mr Arafat and his entourage to start their engines to drown out the sounds of fury from the cabinet meeting.

Palestinians and Jordanians may be over-suspicious, but they are surely right to believe that the outcome of Mr Netanyahu's latest crisis has added new ingredients and new uncertainties to the Middle East conflict.

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