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Israeli Roller Coaster

Netanyahu favors a ride along edge of abyss

By Geoffrey Aronson / October 22, 1997



Israel's abortive assassination attempt on the life of Khaled Meshal late last month has invited the ridicule and scorn of commentators around the world.

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Even the official silence from Washington barely masks the growing disdain felt towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by key US policy makers, who complain that they are tiring of saving Netanyahu from himself.

Yet the key barometer of Netanyahu's power was and remains his domestic position.

While the domestic political fallout from the Amman affair certainly won't add to Netanyahu's well-tarnished reputation, it appears far less likely to leave a lasting impression on a society that has been battered by a constant series of blunders at the hands of the young prime minister.

In the days since Netanyahu's initial cover-up story was shattered, the Israeli media, reflecting a large segment of Israel's elite opinion, has been merciless in its criticism of every aspect of the affair - frequently seen as the latest proof of Netanyahu's unsuitability for leadership.

For many Israelis, the failed Meshal assassination is notable not because it is understood as the exception to an otherwise laudable record of achievement and political restraint under the young prime minister, but because it is so distressingly similar to the misdeeds that preceded it.

Hubris and bad judgment

It combines all of the elements of other controversies - hubris, bad judgment, and the absence of effective decision-making systems.

Elements across the political spectrum - from West Bank settler leaders to Shimon Peres - have found yet another reason to view Netanyahu as a strategic threat to Israel's well-being.

Intelligence professionals have had a field day criticizing what one intelligence commentator called "the most idiotic, most crazy [operation] I can recall."

Ariel Sharon has seen his standing with Netanyahu, already on the rise in recent months, blossom.

Sharon, who since agreeing to a water-sharing plan with Jordan a few months ago has become the Hashemite's favorite Israeli minister, traveled to Jordan and took the lead in discussions with King Hussein to gain the release of the two Mossad agents jailed in Jordan in the aftermath of the abortive operation.

Details now emerging from the bowels of Israel's political-intelligence bureaucracy paint a picture of faulty decision-making in the highest ranks of the government and inter-service rivalry between the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Military Intelligence services that has paralyzed effective coordination.

Intelligence embarrassment

Netanyahu's relations with all intelligence services have been marked by an unprecedented lack of mutual trust and differing evaluations in the Palestinian and Syrian arenas.

In the aftermath of the Amman operation, both Shin Bet and Military Intelligence officials are running as far and as quickly as they can away from the affair.

The "clarification committee" appointed by Netanyahu to investigate the affair can be expected to minimize the disruption to the political status quo.

Similar committees, which lack any enforcement powers, were impaneled to investigate the clashes on the Haram-as-Sharif in October 1990 and the Pollard spying affair.

The assassination attempt adds fuel to the fire of those who have already decided that his election was a grave error.

Typical of these assessments, found most frequently in the newspaper Ha'aretz, is the call to arms issued by commentator Chemi Shalev in Ma'ariv.

"If Netanyahu does not change his policies," wrote Shalev, "the Knesset will have to dismiss him from office."

But there are limits to the effectiveness of such attacks.

For the majority of Israelis, the affair in Amman is something to lament only because it failed.

Most still support Netanyahu. As the best-selling newspaper Yediot Aharanot editorialized, "why should guilt be felt for attempting to kill the leader of murderers with Jewish blood on his hands?"

And even as many despair of Netanyahu's leadership, and worry about the future of their country, they have grown used to the roller-coaster ride they have been on since his election victory.

They have seen how he has emerged battered but in some ways strengthened from his frequent spectacular misjudgments, and they have been reconciled to the fact that nothing short of a national disaster will bring Netanyahu to account.

For many others, it is merely the latest, but not the last time, that Netanyahu will bring them to the edge of the abyss.

* Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.