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Would-be Israeli assassins were disguised as performers

Israel's plan to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan last month called for four agents to masquerade as street performers, surround their target and discreetly brush poison on his skin, Israel television reported Friday.

However, the operation was badly planned. The targeted man, Khalid Mashaal, survived, the agents were caught, and the botched assassination became one of the biggest blunders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 18-month administration, with an angry King Hussein coming close to cutting off ties with Israel.Israel television, citing preliminary findings of an inquiry, said no backup plan had been prepared in case something went wrong.

However, when the agents of the Israel spy agency Mossad were unable to surround Mashaal outside his office in Amman, two of them went ahead and brushed the toxin near his ear anyway, calling attention to themselves.

The agents then jumped into a waiting car, drove about 500 yards, got out of the vehicle and tried to flag down a taxi.

While they were waiting for the taxi, a Hamas bodyguard who had chased their car tackled them and, with the help of a nearby off-duty policeman, arrested the agents.

Israeli television said there was no certainty Mashaal would have died even if the plan had succeeded because the effects of the poison had not been thoroughly tested.

In the aftermath of the failed assassination, Israel was forced to free Hamas' founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and dozens of other prisoners to appease Jordan. As part of the swap, the Mossad agents also were released.