What: On 25 September, 1997, Israelis from the Mossad spy agency attempted to assassinate Palestinian political leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman, the capital of Jordan. The brazen attempt on the life of the then 41-year-old head of the Hamas Political Bureau sparked a diplomatic row which threatened to wreck the newly-signed peace deal between Jordan and Israel. The crisis ended with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a number of humiliating concessions.
Where: Amman, Jordan.
When: 25 September, 1997.
In an attempt to cripple the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister, authorised the assassination of Meshaal. The little-known Palestinian leader was born in 1956 in Silwad, which was then in the Jordanian administered West Bank. In 1967, Meshaal’s family and 300,000 other Palestinians were expelled from their homes by Israeli occupation forces in a second wave of ethnic cleaning that came to be known as the Naksa (Setback). Netanyahu is said to have personally picked Meshaal from a number of Hamas operatives for Mossad agents to kill. The attempt on Meshaal’s life came in the wake of a series of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
A six-member Mossad team arrived in Amman a week before the assassination using false Canadian passports. The plan was clear: kill the exiled Hamas leader using a lethal toxin without leaving any trace of the killers. The idea was that after the toxin had been administered covertly, Meshaal would go about the rest of his day as normal and then, when tiredness overcame him, he would take a nap, never to wake up again; he was expected to die within 48 hours.
On the morning of the assassination attempt, two of the six agents moved into position to deliver a lethal dose of toxin — identified later as fentanyl — as Meshaal entered his office. The other four Israeli agents are said to have been deployed around the block either as drivers or as lookouts.
The Mossad agents delivered the toxin using an aerosol device and fled from the scene. One of Meshaal’s bodyguards gave chase and managed to apprehend the assassins after some hand to hand combat. Their capture was to have major ramifications.
What happened next?
Hours after the arrest of the two agents by the Jordanian authorities, the Israelis hatched a plan to diffuse the situation. With the diplomatic consequence of his actions dawning on Netanyahu, he attempted to conceal the botched assassination attempt from the rest of the world. He dispatched Mossad head Danni Yatom to plead with King Hussain of Jordan for the agents’ release. Yatom’s pre-emptive disclosure and plea for help from the Jordanian monarch exploded in Israel’s face, sparking a diplomatic crisis with the Hashemite Kingdom, which had normalised relations with the Zionist state three years earlier.
While the Israelis tried frantically to keep a lid on the botched plot, Meshaal’s health deteriorated. The toxin had done its job and within 48 hours he would be dead. King Hussain warned Israel that if the Hamas leader died, the Mossad agents would be hanged as murderers. The King had gone out on a limb to sign a peace treaty with Israel against the wishes of his people, so he called US President Bill Clinton to enlist his support. It was said that US anger was such that no one within the normally pro-Israel White House was willing to make Netanyahu’s case for him. “This man is impossible,” Clinton is reported to have said upon hearing that the Israeli Prime Minister had authorised the assassination attempt with little regard for Jordanian sovereignty, and thus endangered the fragile peace treaty.
Having been stonewalled by Netanyahu for the antidote to the toxin at the first time of asking, an angry King Hussein relayed his message through Clinton, insisting that the Israelis must deliver a vial of the antidote, which was the only way to save Meshaal’s life. “If Meshaal dies, the peace treaty dies with him,” he insisted. With the US applying pressure, Israel had no choice but to comply. A light aircraft delivered the antidote.
The indignity for Netanyahu did not end there. The two Mossad agents were still under arrest facing a death sentence and the Israeli Embassy in Amman, in which the other four members of the six man Mossad team had taken refuge, was surrounded by Jordanian security forces. In exchange for allowing them to leave Jordan, King Hussain was determined to exact a heavy price. He demanded a prisoner exchange, which was agreed.
Under the deal, Israel released the ailing Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic founder and spiritual leader of Hamas who was one of the most notable Palestinians in its prisons, along with 70 other Palestinian prisoners.
Meshaal was saved with just hours to spare. His reputation grew within the Palestinian resistance movement as “the man who wouldn’t die”. He became the leader of Hamas when Israel assassinated Yassin in 2004.
Meanwhile, a chastened Netanyahu was forced to apologise. His act of contrition came two days later when he arrived in Amman to pledge that Israel would not make another attempt on Meshaal’s life. This was not the end for the humiliated Israeli Prime Minister. He lost his bid for re-election in 1999, after which he retired temporarily from politics.