Analysis: Miles away from Mashaal

Netanyahu and the perception of a foul-up in Dubai.

By BY GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
February 19, 2010 00:31
3 minute read.
This combination image made from undated photos re

mabhouh assassins 311. (photo credit: AP)

In the second year of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, the Mossad’s botched assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan caused Netanyahu great embarrassment.

The operation, which Netanyahu personally approved, resulted in the arrest of two Mossad agents, the release from prison of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to bring them home, and Mashaal living to order countless more terrorist attacks against Israelis. It also had a grave political impact on Netanyahu, who was already losing support to Labor’s new leader, Ehud Barak.

Now in the second year of Netanyahu second term, the perception of a foul-up in Dubai, possibly involving the Mossad, could have triggered a diplomatic crisis with Israel’s allies and caused Netanyahu similar political problems.

But 2010 is not 1997, Dubai is not Amman, the political opposition to Netanyahu today is nowhere near what it was back then, and most importantly, Hamas weapons procurement director Mahmoud Mabhouh is no longer among the living.

Israel already had strained relations with Jordan at the time of the Mashaal incident in September 1997, three years after Israel reached a peace agreement with its eastern neighbor, due to the turmoil surrounding Netanyahu’s opening of an exit to the Western Wall tunnel a few months before. In Dubai, there was comparably nothing to lose, because Israel does not have relations with the United Arab Emirates.

The potential for diplomatic fallout with Britain appeared to dissipate following the brief meeting that Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor had Thursday with Peter Ricketts, the permanent under secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And even if Gordon Brown’s government was upset about the use of British passports, he might not be prime minister after the election expected in May.

Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that even had Netanyahu known there would be the amount of fallout from the assassination that there has been so far, he still would have proceeded with it. It has not gone unnoticed by Netanyahu’s associates that he has faced no political criticism whatsoever for the affair, even at the height of the uproar over the assassins caught on tape and the Israelis whose identities were used.

One reason for this is that Barak is now defense minister and not opposition leader. It also helps that the current head of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, happens to be a former employee of the Mossad. Livni has resisted repeated requests to comment publicly about what happened in Dubai.

Kadima MKs with a background in security did not want to be seen as attacking the Mossad or helping Israel’s enemies. For instance, MK Gideon Ezra, a former deputy Shin Bet chief, said that any comment about it was one too many.

“People are blabbering too much,” Ezra said. “This story might sell papers, but I think we need to give it time to pass and allow people to forget about it.”

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi of Kadima said that under no circumstances would his committee discuss the affair.

Although it was initially reported that Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson, another former Shin Bet deputy chief, had requested that a hearing be held on the issue, in the end no such request was filed with the committee.

Kadima MK Nachman Shai said the reason Netanyahu was not facing criticism was that there was a consensus in Israeli society that assassinations of terrorist leaders were necessary and that the Mossad was a sacred cow.

“It’s not a failure like what happened with Mashaal, because the scoundrel is dead, no one was arrested, and no terrorists were released from prison,” Shai said. “The Mossad has an ethos and you don’t hurry to come out against it. It would look very bad to the public. It’s political suicide to come out against the Israeli consensus on something like this.”

And yet it is possible that the main political fallout from the incident could be that it would be more difficult for Netanyahu to extend Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s term beyond the already unheard of eight years he has already been given in a job normally held for no more than four.

Dagan has his share of enemies and is seen as difficult to work with.

Danny Yatom lost his job as head of the Mossad over what happened in Amman.

When Netanyahu took over, he replaced almost everyone from the previous Kadima administration. But he insisted on keeping the two men playing the most serious roles on the Iranian issue, which is by far the most important to Netanyahu: Barak and Dagan. For that reason, it is important to Netanyahu that Dagan not become a victim of the incident in Dubai.


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