In the national mortification over a failed assassination attempt in Jordan, Israelis are dissecting every tactical, technical and procedural flaw in the affair. Strikingly absent from the debate, however, is a question that might be expected elsewhere: Should the government be in the business of dispatching assassins to kill its enemies abroad?
For Israeli Jews, profoundly insecure still in their 50th year of statehood, the answer appears to be self-evident. No mainstream politician or columnist, from right to farthest left, has questioned Israel’s entitlement to hunt down accused terrorists such as Khalid Mashaal, the chief of the militant Islamic group Hamas’ political bureau in Amman, Jordan.
That is unusual among democracies with roots in the Western traditions of individual rights and the rule of law. In England, allegations of a shoot-to-kill policy by British troops against the Irish Republican Army caused a scandal in the mid-1980s. In the United States, the backlash against CIA abuses unearthed by the Church Committee led to a legal ban on assassinations in 1976.
Israeli law not only sanctions assassination but has regularized it to some extent. At roughly the time that the U.S. Congress passed the assassination ban, then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir set up twin committees - a forum of secret service chiefs known by its Hebrew acronym, Varash, and a panel of government ministers known as the X Committee - to identify candidates for assassination by the Mossad, Israel’s espionage agency.
What has aroused debate in Israel is not the Sept. 25 attempt to poison Mashaal but rather its spectacular failure. To obtain the freedom of two captured Mossad agents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to provide the antidote for the nerve agent that otherwise would have killed Mashaal within two days. Relations chilled with Jordan and with Canada, whose forged passports the Mossad agents had carried. Hamas, the “snake” whose “head” Israeli officials said they had been trying to cut off, emerged far stronger when Netanyahu was forced to release its founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, from an Israeli prison.
One measure of the Israeli political dialogue, and the assumptions shared by those who take part in it, was a radio interview given by Alex Lubotsky, a member of parliament from the middle-of-the-road Third Way party. The issue he was addressing was not whether Israel should engage in assassinations, but whether it should do so in friendly countries such as Jordan.
“It’s very easy to say you shouldn’t do it in countries with which we have relations,” Lubotsky said. “The first commitment of a government is to the security of its people. Unfortunately we don’t live in a normal country, and we don’t live in a normal region.”
Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan, in a long conversation last week full of bewilderment and barely suppressed rage, put it differently. The Jewish state’s tradition of glorifying covert killing, he said, “is a part of Israel’s not wanting to become a country that is part of the region.”
Israelis argue that they are locked in a life or death struggle and have no practical choice of tools. Against hostile governments, officials said, they have other means of pressure and do not resort to assassination. But terrorists, among whom the Israelis count Hamas and, at one time, the Palestine Liberation Organization, can be combated only in kind.
Netanyahu, in his only televised defense of the assassination mission, said the alternative to “brave decisions” like the one to target Mashaal is to heed “frightened, alarmed voices … which are explaining why we must sit with our hands tied when facing these murderers.”
“It’s the old-time religion - eye for an eye,” said a senior American diplomat. “It’s very biblical, and a basic value of post-Holocaust Jews.”
After the PLO’s Black September arm mounted a hostage-taking operation in which 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics were killed, Meir directed the Mossad to find those responsible and kill them. In 1993, a former military intelligence director, Aharon Yariv, acknowledged for the first time in public that Israeli hit teams had carried out those orders.
With this history in mind, Netanyahu’s director of communications and policy planning, David Bar-Illan, defended the prime minister by saying, “He did what every other prime minister would have done.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Assassins After the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the Mossad to find those responsible and kill them: In a humiliating mistake, Mossad assassins killed Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter in the Norwegian ski resort of Lillehammer, mistaking him for Ali Hassan Salameh, a security aide to PLO leader Yasser Arafat and widely reported to have played a key role in Munich. In 1979, they caught up with Salameh, known as Abu Hassan, and killed him in Beirut. In 1988 Israeli agents killed Khalil Wazir, Arafat’s senior deputy, known as Abu Jihad. In 1995 they killed Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki in Malta. In 1996 they used a booby-trapped cellular phone to kill Yehiya Ayash, a Hamas bomb-maker known as “the Engineer,” in Gaza City.