The Daily Star
Tuesday 23 February 2010
By Michael Glackin
In diplomatic circles, Israel increasingly resembles a distant relative who drunkenly turns up at family functions, does something embarrassing, and leaves the rest of the family wringing its hands in bewilderment.
Whether or not firm evidence emerges linking Mossad to the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on January 19 (and as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was at pains to point out last week, there is currently no proof of Israeli involvement), it is clear there are few better suspects if you follow the old adage of “Who benefits?”
It is equally clear that Ireland, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, whose passports and citizens’ names were used by the 11-member hit squad, do not want to make a fuss about the affair. While various politicians were busy feigning concern last week, there is a tacit acceptance among Western governments that events like the murder of Mabhouh are merely things Israel is liable to do from time to time, and that these are best ignored or forgotten as quickly as possible.
The laughably fruitless 15-minute meeting in London on Thursday between the Israeli ambassador, Ron Prosor, and Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent secretary who heads Britain’s diplomatic service, underlined this point. Prosor told reporters after the meeting that he “was unable to add any information and could not shed new light” on the affair. Meanwhile, despite its concern over the circumstances surrounding the assassination, the Foreign Office was unable to say whether Israel was even cooperating with the British Serious Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) investigation into how British passports in the name of six British nationals living in Israel were used by the hit squad.
In the mid-1980s, Mossad was forced to promise never to use British passports to help its agents carry out covert operations. The intelligence agency did so when the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, effectively closed down its British operation after the discovery of a bag of forged British passports lost by a Mossad agent. And five years ago Israeli agents were arrested in New Zealand trying to acquire a passport in the name of a quadriplegic. Again, Israel had to promise not to repeat the exercise.
There are a lot of reasons why the UK wants the Mabhouh assassination to quietly fade away. British diplomatic relations with Israel are already strained. Aside from the perennial complaints from Israel about the “Arab bias” of the British Broadcasting Corporation in its reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is also the matter of a British court issuing an arrest warrant last year for Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Livni was forced to cancel a visit to the UK after pro-Palestinian groups applied to the courts to issue the warrant because of her role in war crimes allegedly committed during the Gaza war.
Amid the political bickering, intelligence-sharing over terror groups between the British and Israeli secret services has also been threatened, without so far being terminated. Indeed, despite official denials, it is clear that the Brown government knew some time ago that British passports had been used by Mabhouh’s killers. An Irish Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed that Irish officials first looked into reports of Irish passports being used by the assassins as far back as February 5.
In fact, speculation is rife that MI6 was tipped off that Israeli agents were going to carry out an “overseas operation” using fake British passports. The British Daily Mail even had a member of the Mossad saying that the Foreign Office was told about the assassination a few hours before it took place, although the identity of the victim was not disclosed.
All this comes at a time when pressure is mounting on the government to hold a public inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the war on terrorism after British judges ruled that the country’s intelligence personnel had been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects. Fears persist that the British failure to take a firm stand on the Mabhouh case, such as the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, will play into the hands of Islamist terrorist groups seeking to recruit members within the UK’s borders.
The rather subdued hue and cry shifted to Brussels yesterday, where Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, met the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, along with the ministers of the other European Union member states whose passports were used in the assassination. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East program in London, believes all four governments are keen to bury the issue. “By dealing with it at the European level, within the council of ministers, they are signaling they want the issue to die quietly. It’s quite obvious no one really wants to do anything.”
Perhaps this best explains why Israel seems to be enjoying all the publicity. On the day Prosor met with Ricketts, the Israeli Embassy’s official Twitter feed posted a joking reference to the killing, and the fact that two of the assassins were dressed in tennis gear: “You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on Dubai target.” The headline linked to a report on the victory by the Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer, who had reached the finals of the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Peer is probably more upset about the crass joke than any Western government is about the assassination.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.