Israel's Keystone Cops Botched assassination: Vaunted Mossad bungles badly, unleashing a political crisis.

October 10, 1997

THESE ARE TIMES of reflection as world Jewry prepares to celebrate the end of the High Holidays with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starting tonight at sundown. Lending poignancy to this observance is a messy assassination scandal in Israel that raises myriad sensitive political and moral questions. The country is divided; so are Jews in the Diaspora.

For much of its existence, Mossad, Israel's spy agency, has had a sterling reputation of being able to achieve the impossible. Whether it captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann or liberated a planeload of hijacking victims in Uganda, Mossad-directed operations were the standard against which other world spy agencies were measured.

That's why it is difficult to understand what made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's intelligence chiefs authorize murder by gas in Jordan of Khaled Meshal, political leader of the extremist Hamas movement. The attempt was botched, and the Hamas leader did not die. Meanwhile, two Israeli agents posing as Canadians were captured. The Netanyahu government was forced to free some 70 political prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, just to gain the release of the two Mossad agents.

Mr. Netanyahu is now taking flak from all quarters. Jordan's King Hussein, who has quietly cooperated on some other missions, is outraged. So are many Israelis across the political spectrum. Theirs has been a divided house since June 1996, when Mr. Netanyahu narrowly rose to power. There is now talk of ministers resigning from his shaky coalition Cabinet.

On Wednesday, even as Sheikh Yassin basked in an Arab popularity that was stronger than ever, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held a hastily convened summit with Mr. Netanyahu. Considering that theirs was the first meeting in eight months, the parley at least gave the appearance of keeping the tortuous Middle East peace process alive.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has blundered badly. He should learn from his mistakes, though, that any lasting solutions in the Middle East will have to come at the negotiating table, not through assassinations.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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