Laila El-Haddad / Al-Jazeera – 2008-04-24 22:52:06
(April 22, 2008) — Danny Yatom has held key military, security and political posts during major junctures in Israel’s history. But he is perhaps best known for his stint as the director of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and the organisation’s botched assassination attempt on Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s political leader.
Yatom says the plot to kill Meshaal — by injecting poison into the Hamas leader’s ear — was “a failure” but not “a mistake”.
In the first of a two-part interview with Al Jazeera, Yatom staunchly defends the assassination of Palestinians deemed “terrorists” by Israel.
But he says his country is ready to negotiate with Hamas — albeit indirectly — to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian fighters in June, 2006.
Al Jazeera: In 1997, during your tenure as director, Mossad tried and failed to assassinate Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas political bureau chief. In retrospect, was the attempt to assassinate Meshaal a mistake?
Yatom: I don’t think so because he was and still is the head of Hamas, and he was situated in Amman. Now he is situated in Damascus, but all the links between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank regarding Hamas and the terror attacks during those days … were to Khaled Meshaal.
The late Yitzhak Rabin [Israel’s former prime minister] requested that King Hussein shut Hamas headquarters in Amman down.
King Hussein refused. He said that his people can monitor Khaled Meshaal and his people better in Amman than if they were somewhere else. But the Mukhabarat [Jordan’s security agency] did nothing.
We had all the information. And Khaled Meshaal was the mastermind behind many attacks that claimed many lives.
[Note: Yatom, in his capacity as an adviser, has taken part in nearly all major rounds of Arab-Israeli negotiations.]
After terror attacks in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, asked security chiefs to offer suggestions on how to fight Hamas — in addition to what Israel was then doing in the territories.
My suggestion was not Khaled Meshaal, and was not Jordan.
What was your suggestion?
Something else. Not in an Arab country.
Someone or something?
Netanyahu decided that my suggestion was not tough enough on Hamas. He asked me to go after one of the heads — one of the four. They were Meshaal and three others: Ibrahim Ghosheh, Musa Abu Marzouk, and a fourth one.
And when the option came, when the plan became real, due to many reasons, it was Khaled Meshaal.
We very much understood the sensitivity of doing something in Jordan, so we decided to do it in a silent way. But there was a failure. The agents were caught by the Jordanian police.
Immediately, when I got the information I took a plane and went to see King Hussein and told him the entire story and that we had an antidote [to prevent Meshaal from dying].
We offered him — I offered him — the antidote, because I understood that if Meshaal was going to die after our people were caught, it was only likely to make the situation more complicated.
The Jordanians refused to use it because they thought it was a [another] plot. Meanwhile, Khaled Meshaal was dying, so the Jordanians demanded that we give them more information about the antidote. We gave it to them, and they were convinced. They gave him a shot and since then he started to recover.
Would Israel assassinate Meshaal today?
The Israeli policy is that as long as there is terror, the terrorist must understand that anyone who executes terror will not enjoy immunity.
So Mossad carries out extra-judicial assassinations?
The way I will refer to it is that whoever deals with terror should not enjoy any immunity.
Without regard to international law?
With regard to what [former president] Bill Clinton said: there should be “zero tolerance for terror.”
What do you think Israel should do now?
I am against a large-scale ground operation because I don’t think that it will help — neither us, nor the Palestinians. It will only cause destruction and bloodshed and suffering.
But as long as Hamas fires rockets at our cities we will fight back, and what is being done today is the way we should operate.
I think we have to support and to develop dialogue, via the good services of the Egyptians, with Hamas — not directly.
I am ready to negotiate a ceasefire that will cease all hostilities on both sides — one that will also seal the border and the Philadelphia corridor [the narrow stretch of land on the Egyptian-Gaza border] so that the Hamas will stop smuggling.
But only a ceasefire in Gaza, not the West Bank.
Because they don’t control the West Bank. If there is an attempt to carry out terror in the West Bank, I don’t want them to say “Israel violates its agreement” if Israel strikes there. I cannot agree to that.
Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire twice before and Israel did not honour it.
This is not true. What happened was that after a few days, rockets were fired at us by other [Palestinian groups].
A fully-fledged ceasefire means everything.
Do you think there is a military option in Gaza?
I am against it.
A recent poll by the Ha’aretz newspaper found that a majority of Israelis support talks with Hamas. Are you ready to engage Hamas, and if not, why did Israel allow them to participate in the elections?
We were forced by the Americans to allow Hamas to participate in elections, and it was a dramatic mistake because it was against what was written in Oslo — that only parties, not organisations, that accept our right to exist, will participate in elections.
But, it was under the pressure of President George Bush and Condoleezza Rice [US secretary of state], and Ariel Sharon [former Israeli prime minister] accepted it. The common understanding in Israel and the US was that Fatah would win. It was a surprise to all of us.
Secondly, as I told you, I am ready to talk to Hamas. But I am ready to talk to Hamas only on two issues and in an indirect way: One is a ceasefire [in Gaza], and the second one is the exchange of prisoners in order to get back Gilad Shalit.
Profile: Danny Yatom
• Born — March 15, 1945.
• 1963 — 1996: Served in the Israeli army rising to the position of Israeli Central Command chief.
• 1996 — 1998: Head of the Mossad and served as security adviser to Yehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister.
• 2003 — 2006: Elected to the Knesset on the Israeli Labour Party ticket, and re-elected in in 2006.