The Star   9 October 1997

Letter from the Levant The Misha'l Affair: How Netanyahu managed to shoot himself in the foot

By Osama El-Sherif

IT HAD all the elements of a best seller spy novel; a hi-tech murder plot, mysterious assassins with forged foreign passports staking the political leader of a militant Palestinian group, a thrilling car chase in the streets of Amman followed by a fist fight and a police arrest. This led to secret contacts and deals between governments and leaders leading to the historic release of Hamas' spiritual leader from Israeli prison. And these are only the highlights.

But this was no cloaks and daggers action movie from Hollywood. As facts began to emerge, what was first termed as a "minor scuffle", as initially termed by the official Jordanian spokesman, has turned out to be one of the most sensational undercover Mossad operations in years.

The implications of the failed attempt on the life of the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Misha'l, are yet to be fully uncovered. The attack failed and as Misha'l fought for his life at Al Hussein Medical City, His Majesty King Hussein sought to control a crisis that was threatening to drag the region into a new cycle of violence.

It is not yet clear how an antidote for the suspicious chemical agent that was injected into Misha'l's head by two Mossad agents was delivered to Jordan. But high-level contacts between Jordan, which now had two of the six Israeli agents in custody, and Israel resulted in some sort of a deal. Israel supplied the antidote and soon after it agreed to pardon and release the founding father of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.

It did not stop there. Israel also agreed to allow Sheikh Yassin to return to Gaza and free some 22 Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners in return for her two agents. There was no way to describe Israel's humiliation as it celebrated its new year. The present that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping to deliver to his people has turned into a curse.

The botched assassination attempt and the arrest by Jordan of the two would-be assassins, who were carrying forged Canadian passports, sent tremors in all directions. At one level, it was a slap in the face of the Israeli government and its infamous Mossad secret service. On another level, the incident threatened already tense relations between Jordan and Israel, two countries bound by a peace treaty that prohibited hostilities against each other. More seriously, the scandal infuriated the Canadian government, which recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations and condemned the Israeli action.

By mid-week the Misha'lgate scandal, as the Israeli press called it, had turned into a major political bombshell for Netanyahu, who had authorized the assassination mission against reservations by the head of the Mossad.

The scandal has dealt a severe blow to Netanyahu at home. Many prominent Israeli figures have voiced their disapproval of Netanyahu's policies and called for a special investigation into the fumbled operation. But most importantly, Netanyahu was unmasked as a man who cannot be trusted; a dangerous man who in the eyes of leaders and people in the region could very easily cause a catastrophe through his reckless policies.

If Netanyahu appeared as the loser, King Hussein, on the other hand, emerged as a winner. He was able to contain a dangerous crisis and move quickly ahead of everybody else. By securing the antidote from the Israelis, the King was able to save the life of Khaled Misha'l. No other man could have strong armed the Israelis to hand in the cure in the most critical moment. He was able to convince the Israelis to take fast measures to pacify Hamas and its followers by releasing their ailing spiritual leader. Such quick and sober thinking on the King's part averted what could have mushroomed into a major catastrophe.

But the Mossad operation has had its toll on relations between Jordan and Israel. Netanyahu will have to deal with the political fall-out of this embarrassing scandal which came at a time when the United States was trying patch up a collapsing peace process.

How can Netanyahu complain about Palestinian terrorism when he was giving the go-ahead to his henchmen to carry out the assassination of a leading political figure residing in a friendly country?

Meanwhile, the triumphant return of Shiekh Yassin to Gaza, less than a week after his arrival in Amman, must have added to Netanyahu's plight. He was given a hero's welcome by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, proving to everybody that Hamas has never been more popular among Palestinian masses. If the aim few weeks ago was to eradicate Hamas, through the combined efforts of the PNA and Israel, the events of the last few days have brought an opposite result.

If there is a moral to this story it is this: Netanyahu has proven that he is not a man the Arabs can partner with to save the peace process. On the other hand, the release of Sheikh Yassin has dealt a blow to American and Israeli efforts to push Arafat into stamping out the Islamic group. The timing for Yassin's release could not have been worse for those seeking to destroy Hamas.

For the moment Netanyahu seems to have lost the initiative. He will be busy in the coming few weeks cleaning up the mess he has created; a political crisis with Jordan and Canada, facing his opponents and the Israeli public at home and most importantly trying to prove to the Americans that he is still in charge and will survive the Misha'l affair.

On the other hand, it is ironic that Netanyahu has given a tremendous boost to the very organization he was trying to destroy. The militant Islamic organization has now gained ground both inside the Palestinian territories and aboard. The influence of Hamas on Palestinian decision making process will become noticeable in the coming days and weeks.

The release of their spiritual leader has given Hamas followers an important moral lift, which should give Palestinian President Yasser Arafat something to worry about since Sheikh Yassin has decided to return to Gaza to be close to Arafat's PNA.

King Hussein, meanwhile, has proven again that Jordan is an important player in the Middle East peace process and that any future initiative will have to pass through Amman.