Tale of Israel's Botched Hit in Jordan Unfolds

Its release of Hamas founder to Jordan Wednesday hints at king's new leverage.

All the hallmarks of old-style, cloak-and-dagger Middle East intrigue are on display in Jordan, as details emerge of how King Hussein has turned a bungled Israeli assassination attempt, carried out on Jordanian soil, into political gain.

Jordan signed a full peace with Israel in 1994, and Israel's involvement in the assassination attempt on "friendly" turf - described as the "biggest no-no in the book" by one Western diplomat - is believed to have put that relationship into jeopardy.

But through deft maneuvering, diplomats and Jordanian sources say, Hussein has kept this key element of Mideast peace intact, bolstered his support at home by showing "solidarity" with Jordanians disillusioned with his peace policies, and won points with Israel and the US by dampening a potential high-profile scandal with Israel.

Few sources now doubt that the two people caught assaulting Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal on Sept. 25 in Jordan's capital, Amman, were agents of Israel's secret service, Mossad, posing as Canadian tourists.

One source says that, contrary to Jordan's official denials, five Mossad operatives are in fact being held, out of an alleged hit squad of eight.

Leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement that rejects the US-brokered peace process - and whose military arm has disrupted peace talks with suicide attacks and bus bombs in Israel - are often, quietly and under control, based in Jordan.

Both the Israeli and Jordanian press have reported that the surprise 2 a.m. release Wednesday by Israel of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the ailing founder of Hamas who has been held in Israel since 1989, was part of a secret deal involving the Israeli agents.

The release of Yassin to Jordan was seen as a snub by Palestinan leader Yasser Arafat, who has for years used the sheikh as a symbol of resistance.

Significantly, Israel has not denied reports of the deal. And Jordanian officials - after first describing the attack as a scuffle between a pair of foreign tourists and Mr. Meshal's driver - now acknowledge the assassination attempt and note Hussein's efforts to contain the "political ramifications."

"The king has turned this very awkward situation into a positive thing, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat," says a senior Western diplomat. "He now holds [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the nose."

Yassin's release, however, is likely to be only the "price for the insult of carrying out such an operation in Jordan." Hussein, he adds, will ask for much more significant concessions from Mr. Netanyahu when handling the fate of the Mossad agents.

Jordanian sources are less sanguine about the king's fortunes, noting that Jordan's current difficulties - unhappiness that peace with Israel has brought little tangible gain, and criticism in the Arab world - remain unaltered.

"It might look like the king has scored, but it is small compared to what could have come from the biggest scandal since the peace with Israel was signed," says one well-connected Jordanian. "The king could have used this to accelerate the downfall of Netanyahu, so Netanyahu should thank his lucky stars, because there is not one state in the world that would not condemn this."

Diplomats are baffled about why Israel would risk undermining its sole close Arab ally though the operation, if successful, would have been fingerprint-free. One Western analyst says that it "indicates Israel's unashamed arrogance toward Jordan."

Hamas politburo member Mohamed Nazzal said in an interview that the two men arrested held both Canadian and Israeli citizenship, were Jewish, "and belong 100 percent to Mossad." Diplomats confirm that the two have declined Canadian representation, but have Canadian accents.

"This assassination attempt creates trouble for the king, which is why he has followed Meshal's case so closely," says Mr. Nazzal. "The Israelis didn't deny it all, and that is the first indication [of guilt]."

The attackers used a still-mysterious hand-held device meant to poison Meshal. Diplomatic and Jordanian sources say that this device has now been inspected by American officials.

Hussein ordered that the Hamas leader be treated in Jordan's top military hospital, and sent his own American doctor, already here on a visit. The Washington Post reported that the king asked President Clinton to intervene to help obtain the antidote.

Jordanian sources say Hussein was "furious" that such an attack occured in Jordan - tarnishing Jordan's image as an oasis of stability - and spoke directly with Netanyahu to clear it up. One source says the Israelis called Amman first and admitted guilt, to delay publicity.

The choice presented by the king, local press and sources say, was for the Israelis to privately come clean so that Meshal's life might be saved with the right antidote, and to minimize the impact on the peace process, or Jordan might be forced to freeze its relations with Israel.

Crown Prince Hassan, evidence of Israel's involvement in hand, was said to have made a secret journey to Israel on Sunday, but Israeli Channel 2 said that Israel's top Cabinet officals, Ariel Sharon, Danny Naveh, and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Mordechai, made their own secret visit to Amman over the weekend.

The crown prince was then was dispatched to Washington for an "urgent" meeting with Clinton.

In a speech on Tuesday, Hussein pointedly called upon Israel to release the "revered" sheikh. Within hours, Yassin was on his way to Amman. Hussein clambored aboard to greet him when it arrived early Wednesday.

The cloak and dagger events, which mark a "wild" week in normally quiet Jordan, diplomats say, has already proven useful for the king at home and abroad. His decision to publicly play down the assassination attempt points to the depth of his long-term strategic aim of peace with Israel.

But one Jordanian critic ascribes it instead to "fear" of Israel and the realities of dealing with the "superpower of the region."

"The king has not backed away from the peace process," counters a Western diplomat. "He is a solid partner.... He takes the long view, and as unfortunate as some Israeli moves may be, it is better to have peace with the people across the Jordan River than not."

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