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Begging royal mercy: How Israel recovered from the botched Mashaal hit, 25 years ago

Efraim Halevy, who handled the crisis with Jordan after the failed Mossad attempt to kill Hamas leader, recalls tense negotiations with King Hussein, with agents’ lives on the line

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal waves during a visit to the Islamic University in Gaza City, Dec. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal waves during a visit to the Islamic University in Gaza City, Dec. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Israel’s failed attempt to assassinate Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal in Jordan, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister-site Zman Yisrael spoke to Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief who was instrumental in the effort to solve the resultant crisis with Jordan.

The botched hit took place on September 25, 1997, two months after a Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market killed 16 people and injured over 160. Israel decided to take out Mashaal, then the head of the terror group’s military wing, who was living in Amman.

Two Mossad agents were to spray the terrorist with a poison in the street, an act that was to be disguised by the opening of a shaken soda can to give the impression of an innocent accident. The plan was carried out as Mashaal emerged from his car to enter his office. But the surprise calls of Mashaal’s daughter from the car led him to turn his head just as one agent sprayed him with the poison, while the startled second man did not open the can.

The Hamas man immediately knew he had been attacked and was rushed away, while the agents attempted to flee but were caught by Jordanian police. Other Mossad agents who were in the periphery fled to the Israeli embassy.

The poison was a potent fentanyl derivative that could kill within hours through skin contact alone. Mashaal was rushed to a hospital and his condition quickly deteriorated.

Jordan’s King Hussein was furious, Halevy recalled, feeling Israel had humiliated his country and had created the impression the nations were cooperating on the operation. Hussein threatened Israel at the time that if Mashaal died, so would the agents. Israeli officials quickly provided the Jordanians with an antidote and medical advice as doctors in Amman fought for Mashaal’s life.

Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, at a conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The Jordanians’ indignation was immense,” Halevy recounted. “They felt that Israel was disrespecting them and treating Jordan like a small and weak country where they could act with impunity.”

Halevy, at the time Israel’s envoy to the European Union, was called in by the government to help handle the crisis due to his close relations with Hussein, and participated in an emergency cabinet meeting called by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“All the suggestions proposed at the meeting were irrelevant,” Halevy recalled. “At the end of the discussion, I voiced my opinion that our conciliatory actions toward Jordan must be ones the Arab world would not interpret as Israeli compensation to the Jordanians but as Jordanian strength.”

When Netanyahu asked what he meant, Halevy said he believed Israel should release Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Netanyahu initially refused. But as the crisis escalated and with no solution in sight, the prime minister called Halevy.

“Netanyahu was very hoarse, he sounded ill. These are well-known phenomena with leaders at a time of crisis. He told me two words in English — ‘do it’ — and hung up.”

Benjamin Netanyahu in December 1996 (Flash90)

Halevy left for Jordan “but I didn’t meet immediately with the king. I needed to get through several levels before he agreed to meet with me.”

The conversation was tense and the king was agitated, he said. “When I raised the issue of freeing Sheikh Yassin as an immediate action by Israel, the king agreed immediately.

“But then we got to the Mossad agents,” he recalled. “The two were under arrest by Amman police and four others, who were in the periphery, had fled to the embassy and were besieged. Jordanian military forces surrounded the embassy. Just thinking of that scene, three years after the signing of a peace deal, tells you everything about the depth of the crisis.”

Jordan’s King Hussein, pictured in March 1997 (AP Photo/Yousef Allan)

Halevy continued: “I appealed to him again and said that on the matter of the Mossad agents, he must show royal mercy. The king looked at me silently. Then he asked what exactly I meant by ‘royal mercy’ because he doesn’t know what that means.”

Halevy said he felt then that the answer he gave to the question may be fateful. “I told him clearly, ‘If I were a king I would know what royal mercy is.’ The king was silent for a short time and then said, ‘Go to the embassy and take the agents.'”

Mashaal recovered from his poisoning and went on to become Hamas’s political leader. Despite Jordan’s outrage, the country moved soon after the events to expel Mashaal and other Hamas officials, and the terror group has not been allowed to operate from Jordan since.

Halevy went on to be appointed Mossad chief, replacing Danny Yatom, and filled the role from 1998 to 2002.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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