February 17, 1998 in Nation/World

Netanyahu Cleared In Botched Attack Mossad Chief Takes The Heat For Assassination Attempt

Dafna Linzer Associated Press
 

An investigating panel appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cleared him of blame Monday in the botched assassination of a Hamas leader in Jordan. Netanyahu insisted Israel would stick to its policy of striking at terrorists “in any place.”

Israel’s relations with Jordan remained deeply strained over the attack, however, and Jordanian officials said they would not resume security cooperation with Israel unless Netanyahu fires the Mossad chief who masterminded it.

The Sept. 25 assassination attempt sparked a crisis in Israel’s relations with Jordan and infuriated Jordan’s King Hussein, Israel’s best friend in the Arab world. The king still wants Mossad spy agency chief Danny Yatom fired, said a senior Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The three-member panel of inquiry pinned most of the blame on Yatom, but said it was up to the prime minister whether to dismiss him.

Netanyahu approved the hit on Hamas political strategist Khalid Mashaal without consulting his Cabinet - including his foreign minister, who subsequently threatened to resign - and Israeli newspapers said he didn’t bother to get an opinion from the chiefs of military intelligence or the domestic Shin Bet security service.

Mossad agents crossed into Jordan on forged Canadian passports for the high-risk assassination attempt. They were caught after injecting Mashaal with a poison and later exchanged for the jailed founder of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, and 20 other prisoners. Mashaal survived.

Netanyahu met Monday with Yatom and said he would review the report, which includes a classified section of about 300 pages, before making any decisions regarding Yatom’s future. Netanyahu refused to answer questions on the report but made a brief statement saying any decision concerning the Mossad was Israel’s alone.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible Yatom would be “quietly replaced in the summer.”

Netanyahu also said Monday that Israel would not change its policy of striking at terrorists anywhere, despite the Mashaal fiasco.

“We will continue to use it (the Mossad) to strike at terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We will not give it immunity in any place.” Netanyahu said an understanding had been worked out with Jordan on how to fight terrorism without having such a blunder recur, but did not explain further.

Hamas has carried out more than a dozen suicide bombings in Israel since 1994, including two in Jerusalem in 1997.

Israeli opposition leaders dismissed the panel’s report as a whitewash.

Opposition legislator Yossi Sarid said the probe was flawed because those investigating the affair were appointed by Netanyahu himself, rather than by the Supreme Court. In addition, the panel was given no special authority, he said.

The failed attack shook Netanyahu’s government and weakened King Hussein’s position in light of an increasingly influential Islamic fundamental movement in Jordan.

Joseph Nevo, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa, said future relations between the two neighbors would depend on Yatom’s dismissal.

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