In the national mortification over a failed assassination attempt in Jordan, Israelis are dissecting every tactical, technical and procedural flaw in the affair. Strikingly absent from the debate, however, is a question that might be expected elsewhere: Should the government be in the business of dispatching assassins to kill its enemies abroad?
For Israeli Jews, profoundly insecure still in their 50th year of statehood, the answer appears to be self-evident. No mainstream politician or columnist, from right to farthest left, has questioned Israel's entitlement to hunt down accused terrorists such as Khaled Meshal, the chief of the militant Islamic group Hamas's political bureau in Amman.
That is unusual among democracies with roots in the Western traditions of individual rights and the rule of law. In England, allegations of a shoot-to-kill policy by British troops against the Irish Republican Army caused a scandal in the mid-1980s. In the United States, the backlash against CIA abuses unearthed by the Church committee led to a legal ban on assassinations in 1976.
Israeli law not only sanctions assassination but has regularized it to some extent. At roughly the time that the U.S. Congress passed the assassination ban, then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir set up twin committees -- a forum of secret service chiefs known by its Hebrew acronym, Varash, and a panel of government ministers known as the X Committee -- to vet candidates for assassination by the Mossad, Israel's espionage agency.
What has aroused debate in Israel is not the Sept. 25 attempt to poison Meshal but rather its spectacular failure. To obtain the freedom of two captured Mossad agents, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to provide the antidote for the nerve agent that otherwise would have killed Meshal within two days. Relations chilled with Jordan and with Canada, whose forged passports the Mossad agents had carried. Hamas, the "snake" whose "head" Israeli officials said they had been trying to cut off, emerged far stronger when Netanyahu was forced to release its founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, from an Israeli prison.
One measure of the Israeli political dialogue, and the assumptions shared by those who take part in it, was a radio interview given by Alex Lubotsky, a member of parliament from the middle-of-the-road Third Way party. The issue he was addressing was not whether Israel should engage in assassinations, but whether it should do so in friendly countries such as Jordan.
"It's very easy to say you shouldn't do it in countries with which we have relations," Lubotsky said. "The first commitment of a government is to the security of its people. Unfortunately we don't live in a normal country, and we don't live in a normal region."
Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan, in a long conversation last week full of bewilderment and barely suppressed rage, put it differently. The Jewish state's tradition of glorifying covert killing, he said, "is a part of Israel's not wanting to become a country that is part of the region."
"For a country that is besieged, taking out figures in other countries who are actively involved in military activities against you, obviously I can see that that is regarded as gallant among the general public," Hassan said.
But Israel, he said, must grow out of that view if it wishes to replace its defiant isolation with normalized, peaceful relations with its neighbors.
"If you expect transparent, legally binding peace treaties with countries in the region, then clearly you can't move into your neighbor's turf, a country that entertains open relations with you . . . and destroy the credibility of that country by using strong-arm methods," Hassan said.
Israelis argue that they are locked in a life or death struggle and have no practical choice of tools. Against hostile governments, officials said, they have other means of pressure and do not resort to assassination. But terrorists, among whom the Israelis count Hamas and, at one time, the Palestine Liberation Organization, can be combated only in kind.
Netanyahu, in his only televised defense of the assassination mission, said the alternative to "brave decisions" like the one to target Meshal is to heed "frightened, alarmed voices . . . which are explaining why we must sit with our hands tied when facing these murderers."
"It's the old-time religion -- eye for an eye," said a senior American diplomat. "It's very biblical, and a basic value of post-Holocaust Jews."
After the PLO's Black September arm mounted a hostage-taking operation in which 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics were killed, Meir directed the Mossad to find those responsible and kill them. In 1993, a former military intelligence director, Aharon Yariv, acknowledged for the first time in public that Israeli hit teams had carried out those orders.
Along the way, in one of the organization's most humiliating mistakes, Mossad assassins killed Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter in the Norwegian ski resort of Lillehammer. The killers mistook him for Ali Hassan Salameh, a security aide to PLO leader Yasser Arafat known as Abu Hassan who was widely reported to have played a key organizing role in the Munich Olympics operation. In 1979, they caught up with Salameh and killed him in Beirut.
In 1988 Israeli agents killed Khalil Wazir, Arafat's senior deputy, known as Abu Jihad. In 1995 they killed Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki in Malta, and the following year they used a booby-trapped cellular phone to kill Yehiya Ayash, a Hamas bomb-maker known as "the Engineer," in Gaza City.
Even Haaretz, Israel's most left-leaning newspaper, justified Shikaki's assassination in an editorial. "In legal terms," the newspaper wrote, "we are talking here about self-defense, of denying the man the capability of continuing to initiate acts of mass murder." With this history in mind, Netanyahu's director of communications and policy planning, David Bar-Illan, defended the prime minister's decision on Meshal by saying, "He did what every other prime minister would have done."
Bar-Illan said he disagreed with references by President Clinton and State Department spokesman James P. Rubin to "political assassination."
"We don't consider this political assassination," he said. "This is in the same line -- and I'm not saying we did it, because I cannot formally say we did it -- as the Yehiya Ayash assassination, the Fathi Shikaki assassination and the Abu Jihad assassination. The whole world cheered the way these assassinations were executed and the results. These were known terror leaders, people who were responsible for the murder of scores if not hundreds of civilians."
What Israelis are debating instead are the mechanics of the assassination attempt and the calibration of political risk. Eitan Rabin, one of Israel's leading military writers, said the "clarification committee" investigating the affair is asking such questions as whether Netanyahu forced the assignment on Mossad chief Dani Yatom, whether the location of the hit in Jordan was unavoidable and whether the right people were chosen for the mission.
Among Israelis, the only fundamental critics of assassination as policy are its Arab citizens.
Abdul Wahab Darawshe, a member of parliament and leader of the Arab Democratic Party, linked Israel's use of extrajudicial killing to a value system that places "the security needs of Israel over everything. It's the only value they respect. Under the rubric of security they can allow themselves to do everything."
Political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, in a similar argument, linked the use of assassination abroad to interrogation methods on Palestinians that Israeli and international human rights groups describe as torture.
"It relates to the torture in the sense that there are certain kinds of limits that do not exist here, even though they're accepted elsewhere," he said. "It is based on a certain kind of metaphysics, and the metaphysics is that there must be a penalty for killing Jews in this world, and if God doesn't take care of it we can do it on his behalf."
And if the attempt on Meshal's life had succeeded?
"If you want me to be honest and measure my spontaneous reaction rather than my considered reaction, I would say to myself two things," Ezrahi said. "One is that it's probably good that he's not alive because he deserves it. But it's probably bad that he's not alive because for each dead Hamas leader there are 10 who would take his place. I would not spontaneously respond to the moral issue here, and I am considered a liberal in Israel." CAPTION: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the assassination mission a "brave decision." CAPTION: Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan said Israel must change its assassination policy if it wants peace with its neighbors.