British Author: Rabin Asked Jordan to Arrange Secret Visit With Saddam

Rabin reasoned that opening up relations with Iraq would increase chances of peace with Syria.

In early summer 1995, a few months before his assassination, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin asked Jordan's King Hussein to approach Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on his behalf and arrange a joint visit by Rabin and Hussein to Baghdad, according to Nigel Ashton, author of "King Hussein: A political Life" (Yale University Press).

Ashton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics who is close to the Hashemite royal family, was given rare access to Hussein's private archives. In his Hussein biography, Ashton writes that when handed a secret letter by a Jordanian official, "Saddam did not rule out direct contacts with Rabin," but was reluctant "to work through lower-level intermediaries." No further moves on the Israel-Iraq initiative were recorded before Rabin's murder that November.

Aston calls the Rabin request for Hussein's intervention with Saddam "a bold and remarkable secret initiative." Saddam, a bitter enemy of Israel, had launched some 40 surface-to-surface missiles at it in 1991, partly in retaliation for the 1981 bombing of the Osiraq nuclear reactor.

Rabin reasoned that opening up relations with Iraq would increase pressure on Syrian leader Hafez Assad, Saddam's enemy, to cut a peace deal with Israel. Perhaps even more importantly, Rabin saw Iran, Iraq's arch-rival, as posing a more dangerous threat to Israel, with Iran bent on a nuclear-weapons program and Iraq under an international-sanctions and monitoring regime after the 1991 war.

"King Hussein played his part in the scheme, handling his contacts with Rabin via the usual channel between his communications chief Ali Shukri and Mossad's [deputy chief] Efraim Halevy," writes Ashton. "As agreed with Rabin, in June 1995 the King sent his Chief of the Royal Court, Marwan Qasim, bearing a secret letter to Saddam proposing the joint visit."

Before there was time to follow up on the Qasim mission with high-level direct contacts, as Saddam indicated he preferred, there was a sudden deterioration in the Iraqi-Jordanian relationship. Saddam's two sons-in-law had defected to Amman and a British MI6 intelligence officer operating out of the Jordanian capital tried to run anti-Saddam opposition elements without the knowledge of the local security service.

Rabin was assassinated on November 4, almost exactly three years to the day after an exercise simulating a planned assassination of Saddam by elite Sayeret Matkal troops ended in disaster, with five soldiers killed. Rabin, as prime minister and defense minister, authorized the planning and the exercise, though the final go-ahead for the operation itself awaited further deliberations.

Saddam was to be first approached by an Israeli prime minster in April 1984, when president Reagan's special Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld tried to get assurances that Israel would not attack an oil pipeline to be built by the Bechtel Corporation and run from Iraq to Jordan's only port, Aqaba.

According to a Pentagon official in Rumsfeld's party, Howard Teicher, Rumsfeld was surprised when Yitzhak Shamir countered by suggesting that instead of the new project, oil would flow again in the old Trans-Arabian Pipeline, Tapline, which was shut down in 1967. Shamir, seeing Iran as the bigger threat to Israel, asked Rumsfeld, due to visit Baghdad, to give this message to Saddam.

Rumsfeld proceeded to report it to foreign minister Tariq Aziz, in a 10-minute private meeting, but a horrified Aziz turned pale and begged Rumsfeld to take back his message. If Aziz dared give it to Saddam, he said, Saddam would execute him on the spot.