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Failed Assassination Attempt By Israel Increases Tensions

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
AMMAN, Jordan

As Hamas leader Khaled Meshal drove up to his office here one morning late last month, two men were loitering outside the door. One was dark and muscular, the other bearded and blond. According to five witnesses, the blond fell in behind Meshal as he left his car and extended an arm to the Hamas leader's left ear. From a lead-colored instrument wrapped in tape came a loud popping sound, Meshal said, and a shivering sensation raced down his spine "like an electric shock."

Within minutes of the Sept. 25 attack, Meshal's bodyguard would run the men down and subdue them in a bloody fistfight a mile away. Within hours, Meshal, 41, would lie perilously close to death in a military hospital with uncontrollable vomiting and respiratory arrest.

By the following day, U.S. and Jordanian officials said, the two captured assailants' cover identities as Canadian tourists had unraveled, and their Jordanian interrogators had recognized them as agents of Mossad, the Israeli espionage agency.

The nearly two weeks since what is described here and in Israel as a botched assassination attempt have been some of the costliest for Israel in the history of its storied security services.

Jordan's King Hussein, Israel's closest Arab ally, was so enraged by the attack in his capital that close confidants said Sunday he came to the brink of breaking relations with the Jewish state. Canada, protesting the breach of previous promises to stop forging its passports, recalled its ambassador to Israel.

According to Israeli opposition leader Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 told him this week that he himself had directed the effort to kill Meshal. Senior U.S. officials, who have participated in American efforts at damage control, confirmed that the orders came from the highest levels of Israel's government.

Yet after spraying what U.S. and Jordanian officials described as a lethal nerve toxin through the Hamas leader's skin, Israel was compelled to meet Jordanian and American demands to supply the antidote - an extraordinary if indirect admission of Israeli sponsorship of an assassination attempt. The U.S. and Jordanian sources said Mossad agents still in Jordan, participants in the operation who carried the antidote in case of accident, turned it over to Jordanian doctors the following day.

Meshal's revival from the gates of death - U.S. officials said the poison, which they declined to name, would have killed him within 48 hours - in some ways prefigured a resurrection of his Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.

Hamas, a militant anti-Israeli group, had been on the defensive recently, its spokesman arrested in Jordan and its mosques and social-service centers shut down in the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid the first serious crackdown on the organization by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat since early 1996.

But in Netanyahu's efforts to calm the crisis with Jordan - he flew secretly to Amman last weekend, but Israeli and Jordanian officials said the king refused to see him - the Israeli premier not only saved Meshal's life but freed the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, from a life term in an Israeli prison.

That marked the end, for now at least, of further pressure on Hamas by Arafat or Hussein. Both men, although threatened by Islamic fundamentalists, felt compelled by strong Islamic constituencies to hasten to Yassin's hospital bedside and cover the popular religious leader with kisses to the forehead and cheeks. According to Palestinian and American officials, weeks of systematic arrests of Hamas members by Arafat's Palestinian Authority have ground to a halt.

Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan, returning from an emergency trip to see President Clinton in Washington, said in an interview at his palace guest house Sunday that he feels "waves of nausea still" when he thinks of Israel's betrayal and its consequences.

"I think it is an act of gross stupidity," he said. "We are always reminded that Israel is the only democratic state in the region and yet you find the only democratic state in the region being associated with an act of terror. What is the point of our meeting in Sharm al-Sheik (in 1996) condemning terror in all its aspects?"

In public, the Israeli government is saying little about the debacle. Cabinet Secretary Dani Naveh read a brief statement this week announcing that "the government of Israel refrains at this time from commenting on media reports regarding activities against Hamas leader Khaled Meshal."