An Israeli penchant for practical jokes backfired on an unidentified army intelligence agent here Tuesday when his April Fools' Day report of an assassination attempt against Lebanese Muslim leader Nabih Berri duped both Israel's defense minister and its state-run radio.
The perpetrator of the hoax reportedly faces a possible jail term after an embarrassed Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had interrupted a session of the Parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee to announce the supposed attack on Berri, had to admit to the lawmakers a few minutes later that he had been the victim of a bad joke.
The false intelligence report on Berri, who is a key member of Lebanon's Cabinet, also found its way to Israel radio, which broadcast it on two successive hourly newscasts before retracting the item.
Israel radio based its report on a call from Mickey Gurdus, who monitors foreign radio broadcasts for the station. Gurdus, in turn, said he was tipped by Rabin's spokesman, Eitan Haber.
"It never dawned on me that it would be an April Fools' joke," an upset Gurdus said later.
Haber conceded that he had called Gurdus after receiving the same intelligence report Rabin got. But he said he was only trying to verify the information, which the hoaxster said had been broadcast over two Lebanese radio stations--Voice of the Nation and Voice of the Arab Revolution.
Israel radio reported Tuesday night that the unidentified prankster "is to be charged and may be imprisoned."
"I don't think it's funny," the radio's editor in chief, Osnat Lander, told reporters. However, there was a certain poetic justice in the station's having been hoodwinked.
On its popular 7 a.m. newscast Tuesday morning, the state radio reported that Swiss authorities in Geneva had agreed to give the Israeli government information on Swiss bank accounts held by Israeli citizens.
The station followed up the report with a discussion between two members of Parliament on whether the amount of additional income tax revenue expected from the breakthrough might make it possible to repeal certain other unpopular taxes.
So many panicky listeners called the station that the radio did not even wait until the end of the newscast to admit that the story had been an April Fools' joke.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, spokesmen for Berri and for Voice of the Nation radio condemned Israel for what they called a sick joke.
"It's Israel's April Fool," a Berri aide said, "if that's what makes them laugh."