Our government seems to be fine with letting the Israeli secret service wage its war with Hamas under a British flag
18 February 2010
British passports are the property of the British government. When that government says and does nothing for six days after it was given evidence that Mossad agents stole the identity of six British citizens to assassinate a Hamas commander in Dubai, it starts to seem as if Israel was right to think it could get away with it. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, yesterday predicted the incident would have no effect on British relations.
The decision last night to call in the Israeli ambassador to “share information” does not change this basic position. If Britain were less supine in its dealings, it would realise it is not in its interests to let Israel wage its war with Hamas under a British flag. What happened was a breach of trust between two nations who are ostensibly allies. The identity theft endangers not just the lives of six passport holders and their families, but potentially anyone carrying a British passport in the Arab world. Faced by a growing political clamour, Gordon Brown was forced to call for a full investigation into how fraudulent British passports were used. We all, alas, know the prime minister’s predilection for investigations that fizzle out. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), led by Sir Ian Andrews, formerly at the Ministry of Defence, will work with the Dubai authorities.
Dubai has already issued its own arrest warrants, but at the very least, the evidence that Soca gathers should be presented to Israel with a demand for an explanation. Britain is not the only country involved in this affair. Dubai believed that 11 agents with European passports were involved in the murder. If Israel disregards Soca, matters should be taken up at EU level. Mossad agents routinely use false identities and forged western passports, and each time they are caught doing it Israel gives assurances they will not do it again. It did so to Britain when the issue came up in 1987. Ten years later it gave the same assurances to Canada, after Mossad agents entered Jordan on doctored Canadian passports and bungled an attempt to kill the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal with poison. Two suspected Israeli agents were jailed in New Zealand for obtaining the country’s passports illegally. These diplomatic assurances are evidently worthless.
The only thing that will give Mossad pause for thought the next time it eyes a target for assassination is if its political masters are made to feel the consequences of its actions. There are at any given moment a plethora of tools at the disposal of Britain and the EU, from bilateral diplomatic contacts and military contacts to arms and trade agreements. London is a key diplomatic listening post for the Middle East, and Britain is a vital interlocutor with the Palestinians. There are any number of ways of getting the message across, not least the question of whether to change the law to make it harder for British courts to issue arrest warrants, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, for former Israeli ministers accused of war crimes. The enduring mystery is why Britain has been so reluctant to pull the levers at its disposal.
The Mossad operation was described in Israel yesterday as a tactical operational success. There was relief that the right target was killed, and all Israel’s operatives got out safely. Israel is not the only country to carry out targeted assassinations. The US pursue the same policy with drones against the Taliban and al-Qaida in North Waziristan. The charge of hypocrisy is swiftly levelled at those who condemn Israel’s strikes while carrying on the same policy in other theatres of war. But assassinations rarely achieve their advertised effect. If the purpose here was to stop Hamas acquiring arms from Iran in Dubai, it will not prevent Tehran from providing weapons through another channel, and the Hamas commander will be quickly replaced. Assassinations such as these might, however, give Arab states even less reason than they already have to normalise relations with Israel. Is that a tactical success or a strategic failure?