JERUSALEM -- In the tumultuous aftermath of a failed Israeli attempt to assassinate a leader of the Islamic movement Hamas in the Jordanian capital, the main conclusion among commentators, experts and politicians was that the operation was mounted in the wrong place, at the wrong time and against the wrong target.
Jordan was the last Arab country still friendly to Israel, relations between Israeli and Jordanian secret services were fruitful, King Hussein was facing a difficult parliamentary election, Israel was on the verge of new talks with the Palestinians, and the target, Khaled Meshal, was not one of the really bad guys in Hamas.
But even among the harshest critics of the operation, there were few who suggested that Israel should actually drop assassination from its arsenal. In the war against terror, they argued, there could be no rules and no borders, and to be struck without striking back was to show weakness in a neighborhood where that could be fatal.
Larry Derfner, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, spoke for many Israelis when he wrote: "Even if the Mossad had managed to kill Meshal, the whole thing probably would have been a failure. The only worse failure would have been if Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu had decided not to hit back."
Throughout Israel's history, virtually every Israeli prime minister, including Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and now Benjamin Netanyahu, has approved clandestine hits against terrorists. Such operations, though never formally acknowledged by Israeli intelligence, form a cornerstone of Israeli myth.
The very word Mossad is virtually synonymous with bold, state-of-the-art cloak-and-dagger operations -- even with well-publicized failures like the 1973 assassination of a Moroccan waiter in Norway who was misidentified as a Palestinian terrorist.
Yossi Melman, a writer on security matters for the newspaper Haaretz, was one of the fiercest critics of the botched attempt on Meshal. "But I wouldn't at all negate the use of assassination for a country like Israel," he said. "What else do you do? You're involved in a game where you do not set the rules. There's no other way for the state to protect itself except through a balance of terror, through revenge."
That line of thinking runs counter to attitudes in much of the rest of the world, where assassinations have been abandoned as an instrument of national policy -- largely because they have proved useless or counterproductive.
Many governments of course have seen expediency in assassination -- be it Bulgaria's killing of a defector in London with a poison-tipped umbrella in 1978, or the CIA's plotting against Fidel Castro in the 1960s. But Franklin Ford, a retired Harvard historian who investigated political killings in a 1985 study, argues that assassination in general has proven itself to be "not a fruitful enterprise."
"Almost never in the past 3,500 years, as far as I can figure out, has it come close to achieving the purpose that it was supposed to advance," he said in an interview. "I don't think it has a useful function in diplomacy. The probability of a counterstrike is increased, and as a deterrent it has never proved itself very useful."
Israeli intelligence officials, however, argue that in the war against terror, eliminating troublesome individuals and trying to deter terror through terror have been effective. Eliminating leaders of small terrorist groups -- such as Zuheir Muhsin, the head of the Saiqa faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, slain on the French Riviera in 1979; or Fath Shikaki, the head of Islamic Holy War, assassinated in Malta two years ago -- seriously disrupted those groups, and their successors have been compelled to spend considerable energy keeping low.
Ezra Gideon, a former senior official in the Shin Bet intelligence service and now a member of the Israeli Parliament, acknowledged that knocking out a Hamas leader in Jordan would not cripple the organization or put an end to terrorism. But he said assassinations had to be part of the struggle.
"If they are working freely from abroad, they get more and more people, more money," he said. "When acting against terror that has no borders, you have to work the way they work."
The Israelis argue further that there is a purpose to a well-executed assassination that goes beyond maintaining a balance of terror. Simply put, it is revenge.
"Israel was thrilled by the killing of Abu Jihad and the 'Engineer,' " said Ehud Sprinzak, a professor at Hebrew University. "When you consider that terrorism is largely a psychological weapon, psychology is very important in the fight against terror. Sometimes you have to boost the morale of your own people."
But morale is difficult to quantify, and the two operations Sprinzak mentioned are also held up as failures by opponents of assassination. Abu Jihad, the second-in-command to Yasser Arafat in the PLO, was assassinated in a military operation at PLO headquarters in Tunis in 1988. Today, however, some Israelis argue that it might have been beneficial to Israel to have a viable successor to Arafat in the Palestinian authority.
As for the "Engineer," Yahya Ayyash, his assassination in January 1996 with a booby-trapped mobile phone was celebrated in Israel, since he was held responsible for devising the suicide bombing tactic. But his death also provoked the bloodiest series of suicide bombings that Israel had ever known, with more than 60 deaths.
In a recent interview with "60 Minutes," Hassan Salameh, the Hamas leader held responsible by Israel for the attacks and now an Israeli prisoner, said the decision to retaliate was made at Ayyash's funeral.
Such reactions have led some Israelis to agree with Ford that assassinations lead only to disaster, especially now that Israel has entered a process of building peace with the Arabs.
"It creates a vicious cycle; it does not help the cause of peace," argued Moshe Maoz, an expert on Arab-Israeli affairs and head of the Truman Institute at Hebrew University. "We can do a great many other things to discourage this kind of terror, by helping Palestinians to find a political solution. It's important now not to go after the symptoms but after the sources of terror -- the humiliation of 30 years of occupation.
"If we do this," he added, "there will still be terrorism. But it will be reduced. They'll have something to lose. Now they have nothing to lose."
Pub Date: 10/12/97