Israelis enjoy a love-hate relationship with the intelligence service, Mossad. When they succeed in another James Bond-style operation, we sing their praises as an example of all good things Israeli: innovation, daring, outsmarting the competition. But when they screw up, we are quick to identify all of our social maladies: arrogance, carelessness, disregarding the rules.
The assassination of the Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai serves as a rare example of both attitudes. When news of the hit first broke, the global media pointed at Israel’s responsibility. Despite the lack of official acknowledgement and the bounds of censorship, Israeli officials and journalists celebrated the “clean” killing of an old enemy – held responsible for the killing of two Israeli soldiers more than 20 years ago, and for the current flow of Iranian arms into Gaza. It added to the glory of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, widely credited for “resuming the fighting spirit” of the organisation. Dagan, appointed by Ariel Sharon, who said “Meir’s speciality is in separating the head of an Arab from his body” recently got an eighth year in office from Binyamin Netanyahu.
Now, however, the wind has changed. Dubai police surprised Israelis with its professional report of “the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh”, showing a video featuring the suspects and their fake European identities. For the first time, we could see our anonymous heroes in a real-life documentary, not a Hollywood spy drama or some later recreation. It’s mesmerising. And indeed, Israelis started looking around for “Kevin”, “Gail” and the film’s other stars in their neighbourhood.
The exposé, however, has more serious consequences. The Dubai suspects used the stolen identities of six British citizens living in Israel, as well as fake Irish, French and German passports. Jordan arrested two members of the Palestinian Authority security organ as accomplices who provided logistic support. Israel’s ambassadors in London and Dublin were called to explain the passport abuse.
The reaction at home was swift. Dagan, yesterday’s hero, is now portrayed as a schlemiel. Even under the wraps of censorship, commentators called for Dagan’s ouster and blamed the government for stealing the identities of civilians and putting sensitive foreign relations at risk. Netanyahu was reminded of his responsibility for the failed hit on Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Jordan in 1997. Dagan’s defenders argued that the hit was carried out superbly and that the diplomatic quarrels are just for the record. Dagan does not intend to step down, since this amounts to official admission of Israel’s involvement.
Assassinations have been an inseparable part of the Israeli-Arab conflict since pre-state days. Israel’s security doctrine views the targeting of enemy operatives as an effective tactic. It’s pointed, not too risky, and undermines the enemy’s confidence. Critics cite the moral problem of extrajudicial killings, and warn that the successor might prove even worse – as happened after Israel killed Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992, and got the more sophisticated Hassan Nasrallah in his place, in addition to the retaliatory bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.
But despite the debate, Israel has never ceased to employ its assassination teams. In the past two years, it was credited abroad for the killings of Hezbollah’s military chief, as well as a key security adviser of Syria’s president and an Iranian nuclear scientist – all daring operations, carried out deep within enemy territory. In all three cases, there were no ricochets beyond threats of vengeance. Only the hit in Dubai, apparently the easiest of espionage playgrounds, got Israel and its intelligence chief into trouble. At least until the next successful operation.
Aluf Benn, a columnist and editor-at-large for Ha’aretz.