On September 25, 1997, the Mossad espionage agency suffered one of the worst debacles in its history, when it bungled an attempt to assassinate Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal. The incident also jeopardized decades of secret cooperation with Jordan.
Ten years have passed since then, and MK Danny Yatom, who was the head of the Mossad at the time, is putting final touches to a book, one chapter of which is devoted to the Meshal affair. He has no regrets. "Of course the operation was necessary," Yatom says. "In retrospect, it caused no damage. Our relations with Jordan went back to what they were before. In my opinion, the reason King Abdullah II expelled the Hamas operatives from Jordan after he succeeded to the throne was his apprehension that we would act on Jordanian soil again." Yatom adds that after King Hussein's death an emissary from the royal court came to tell him that the king had forgiven him personally.
Yatom, however, is apparently one of the few people who thinks his decision was the right one. Nearly everyone else in the top ranks of Israel's political and defense establishments believed then, and continue to believe today, that the decision was wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted. "It was an operation that jeopardized the peace with Jordan for a caprice called Khaled Meshal," says a cabinet minister who in 1997 held an important position in the defense establishment.
Minor Hamas activists
The problem lay not only with the decision to act on Jordanian soil. Internal debriefings in the Mossad and investigations by two committees of inquiry, one headed by a former Defense Ministry director general, Joseph Ciechanover, and the other carried out by the subcommittee for intelligence and the secret services of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, exposed serious flaws at all stages: planning, preparation and implementation.
The affair had its beginnings on July 30, 1997, when a Hamas terrorist attack in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market killed 16 people and injured 169. The prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, wanted an Israeli response, and fast. He summoned Yatom to his bureau and told him to submit a list of Hamas figures who could and should be liquidated. "Bibi pressed and Danny got stressed," a former Mossad official, who was privy to plans, says of their conversation.
Yatom convened an emergency meeting of Mossad heads of departments and operational units, including agency deputy chief Aliza Magen; the head of the "Caesarea" special operations department; the head of the Tevel foreign liaison department, Itzik Barzilai; the head of the Tzomet department (which runs agents), Ilan Mizrahi; the head of the department responsible for target penetration (called "Neviot" in the foreign media), and the heads of the research department and the counter-terrorist unit.
Yatom told them he wanted a list of potential assassination targets immediately, but already in this hasty discussion it became obvious that the Mossad did not have such a list. The Hamas leaders, and particularly its special spearhead, who planned terrorist attacks, lived in the territories and as such were the responsibility of the Shin Bet security service.
"We thought that after the discussion Yatom would demonstrate courage and leadership and tell the prime minister the truth: 'I have no targets for attack,'" a participant in the meeting recalls. But Yatom was adamant. The list he finally received consisted mainly of junior Hamas operatives abroad. He demanded a new list.
In his drive to implement the assassination project, Yatom had two main allies: the head of Caesarea and its intelligence officer, Mishka Ben David. It was only natural for the Caesarea chief to be eager for operational activity. The branch lives for such operations, particularly its special operations unit, known abroad as "Kidon" (Bayonnet), which was then headed by "T."
Caesarea became the operation's exclusive leader. The other departments, including Tzomet, Tevel and the research and hostile activity branches, which had the connections, the assets and above all an understanding of the arena and of the price an operation like this was liable to exact from the Mossad and from Israel, were compartmentalized and deprived from the initial stages of planning and targeting. After field reconnaissance and the collection of intelligence, the list of targets was reduced to three, among them Musa Abu Marzuk and Khaled Meshal.
On September 4, another terrorist attack on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the city center killed five people and injured over 165. The attack only heightened the Israeli leadership's desire for a quick retaliatory operation. In the meantime, it was decided to focus on Meshal, mainly because the Mossad had the most intelligence about him and he was the most accessible.
The head of Caesarea and his intelligence officer, Ben David, led Yatom to believe that everything was under control and that the operation stood a high chance of success. "There was no one in Danny's circle to express doubts and ask questions, to alert him to the difficulties that were liable to crop up," another senior Mossad official says.
The person who should have had doubts was Aliza Magen, the deputy chief, but she expressed none. Her relations with Yatom were cool. Magen, who had previously been Mossad station chief in a European country, thought that Yatom, who had been parachuted into the post by Shimon Peres during his tenure as prime minister after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was not suitable for the job. Asked why she did not voice objections to Yatom's decisions, she replied, "I took part only in some of the discussions. The biggest mistake, in my opinion, was not that it was done there, in Jordan, but that they relied on field reconnaissance by relatively low-ranking officials. Never before in the organization's history was an operation authorized without the head of the Mossad, or at least the head of the department, reconnoitering the site in advance. It can be said that in general I was not pleased with Yatom."
One of the main reasons for the planners' exaggerated self-confidence was their belief in the effectiveness of the method that was chosen for the operation: a poison which, according to foreign reports, was produced at the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona.
According to foreign reports, this was not the first time Israeli intelligence had used poison in an assassination attempt. In 1979 a poisoned package was sent to Wadia Haddad, the commander of a wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Because of the sensitivity of the arena, Jordan, it was decided to carry out what in intelligence jargon is known as a "quiet operation," without leaving "fingerprints." The poison was supposed to bring about inexplicable death within a few hours.
The plan was to have two agents approach the victim, one holding a soft-drink can in his hand which he would open in order to divert Meshal's attention, enabling the second agent to spray the poison on the back of Meshal's neck. As is the custom in the Mossad, the agents carried out a number of practice runs, using a soft-drink can and a sprayer without poison, on passersby on the streets of Tel Aviv. The drills were filmed on video and studied. Yatom says, contrary to rumors spread by Mossad officials, that he observed the drills in person and also personally briefed the agents before they embarked on the mission. In any event, the planners, feeling that the assassination method was foolproof, devoted little time to drilling scenarios in which the field team encountered complications.
No one gave much thought to the problematic nature of the Kidon agents' cover story. The agents, known in the Mossad jargon as "combatants," were given Canadian passports, but some were native Hebrew speakers, with English that was no better than that of the average Israeli.
Furthermore, it was the first time that the Kidon unit was deployed to execute an assassination operation in a hostile Arab environment. The operation was authorized twice, but postponed for operational reasons after the agents were already deployed. On the third occasion, on Thursday, September 25, after 10 A.M., the two Kidon combatants, posing as tourists, approached Meshal. The Hamas man, with an aide, was on the way to his office in Amman. One agent popped open the soda can and the other sprayed the back of Meshal's neck. The entire operation lasted about two seconds. Meshal felt a strange sensation, like a mosquito bite, but nothing more. His aide, however, suspected something and hit one of the agents with a newspaper.
The Mossad men disengaged and, as planned, withdrew to their rental car. The aide ran after the car and recorded the license number. In the car was the unit commander, T. According to the plan, they were supposed to rendezvous with a second getaway car, but something went wrong. To this day, despite all the investigations, it remains unclear why the three never made it to the meeting point and returned almost to where they had attacked Meshal.
No one was more surprised than Meshal's aide to see the car again. It stopped some distance away and the two agents got out, in order to walk to the rendezvous location. The aide, together with another person who had joined him, chased the two and started shouting. Passersby joined the pursuit. The two agents were detained and handed over to a beat policeman. The agents claimed they were Canadian tourists, but were taken to a police station.
Later, the two agents were turned over to the Jordanian security service. They were beaten by interrogators but did not crack, and stuck to their cover story to the end. But their accents gave them away; the interrogators figured they were Israelis. In the meantime, Meshal was taken to hospital in serious condition. The physicians were at a loss.
A few of the Israeli operatives involved in the operation managed to leave Jordan; four others took refuge in the Israeli embassy in Amman. King Hussein was livid. He threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Israel and to send elite army units to break into the embassy. The prime minister contacted with the Israeli ambassador to the European Union, Ephraim Halevy, who as the deputy to the previous Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit, had a special relationship with the king. Halevy flew to Amman and persuaded him to accept a deal. Ben David and the Mossad's physician went to Amman and gave the Jordanian doctors an antidote that neutralized the effects of the poison.
Meshal's life was saved, and thanks to the Mossad failure his status was upgraded from that of a not especially important activist in the organization to his present position as the number-one in Hamas. Israel also released from prison Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. In exchange, Jordan released the two detained agents and also allowed the four agents who had taken refuge in the embassy to return to Israel.
Two committees of inquiry were established in Israel. The Ciechanover Committee found that Netanyahu had acted properly, like previous prime ministers in similar situations. They also noted that he had not exerted pressure on Yatom. In contrast, four members of the Knesset subcommittee (Ehud Barak, Yossi Sarid, Ori Orr and Benny Begin) thought that Netanyahu's performance was flawed and that he had erred in making the decision, but they did not call on him to resign.
Netanyahu declined to comment on the subject this week. Uzi Arad, who was his political adviser at the time and continues to advise him today, said in response, "Everyone was aware of the problematic nature of Jordan, but Meshal was a worthy target for liquidation, and moreover the crisis with Jordan was resolved and Israel did not suffer irreparable or irreversible damage."
As for Yatom, five of the six members of the Knesset subcommittee were of the opinion that he could continue as Mossad chief, with only Yossi Sarid maintaining that he should take responsibility and resign. The Ciechanover Committee concluded that the cabinet, which had appointed Yartom, was the body authorized to decide whether he should resign. The only person involved who took personal responsibility and resigned was the head of Caesarea.
Many in the Mossad expected that Yatom would either resign or be fired, as he had lost the confidence of the organization and became an isolated figure in his office. He spent most of his time preparing for his testimony before the various inquiry committees, constantly consulting with lawyers in his office as the Mossad's employees watched, flabbergasted, never having seen anything like it before. The jokes, exchanged mostly in the dining room, were not long in coming: "I'm not going to pass you the salt until I talk to my lawyer," or "What do you want to drink? A Coke? Okay, but no spritzing."
Yatom remained in office another five months. In February 1998 another fiasco occurred. A Mossad agent was arrested in Bern, Switzerland, while trying to tap into the phone line of a Hezbollah activist. Yatom decided to resign. "I took command responsibility and decided to leave because of the coincidence of the hitches in Jordan and in Switzerland," he emphasizes in an interview to Haaretz, "even though I did not know about the operation in Switzerland. On the day it happened I was in the Prime Minister's Office to read the Ciechanover report. Bibi did not let me read the report at Mossad headquarters. Maybe he thought the place wasn't secure. The authorization for the operation in Switzerland was issued by my deputy, Aliza, even though it was not within her authority. Maybe she was afraid I wouldn't authorize it." Aliza Magen, in response: "What Yatom said is incorrect. He definitely knew about the operation. It's true that I made the decision, but it was within my authority. I authorized operations like that or similar ones three times a week."
Halevy was appointed to succeed Yatom. He tried to rehabilitate the Mossad and get it back on track, but it was difficult to overcome the general mood of depression that prevailed in the agency. The feeling was that the public had lost its trust in the organization and was derisive of it. That atmosphere of disparagement, even contempt, trickled down through the organization, even to the level of the agents, affecting the agency's most important assets: esprit de corps and prestige.
Yitzhak Barzilai, Ilan Mizrahi and the other department heads referred to in the article declined to comment. Mishka Ben David could not be reached for comment.