Australian FM: We await probe results

Israel concerned about ‘copycat’ effect following UK expulsion of diplomat.

By JONNY PAUL IN LONDON
March 24, 2010 22:25
This combination image made from undated photos re

mabhouh assassins 311. (photo credit: AP)

Israeli officials on Wednesday expressed hope that Australia, Ireland, France and Germany would not follow Britain’s lead and expel Israeli diplomats over allegations of forged passports used to kill Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January.

Only Australia and Britain sent their own investigators to Israel to look into the forged passport allegations, and as a result it is expected that Canberra, too, will need to publish their findings in a report, and the Australian government will need to draw conclusions.

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“This issue is now a rolling stone,” one official said of the British government’s decision on Tuesday to expel an Israeli diplomat, believed to be the Mossad’s representative in London.

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Analysis: The legacy of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Another government official confirmed reports that the expelled official would be replaced, adding that close intelligence coordination between the two countries was in the interests of both London and Jerusalem.

In addition to 12 British passports allegedly used by the team that killed Mabhouh, eight Irish, four Australian, one German and two French passports were also allegedly used.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith would not say on Wednesday, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, whether Canberra would take action similar to that taken by the British government.

“To make any commentary or remarks about what the United Kingdom government has done would necessarily cut across our own investigation and what decisions we might make,” Smith said. “Suffice to say we are treating this matter very seriously. Israel understands that and when I receive the report, we’ll make judgments which will be in Australia’s national interest.”

Foreign Secretary David Miliband, following the conclusion of the British investigation of the matter, told Parliament on Monday that “we have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of the British passports.”

While officials in Jerusalem said there were efforts both in London and Jerusalem on Wednesday to “lower the flames” on the issue, it remained very high on the public agenda in Britain.

Officials in Jerusalem said it would take considerable efforts to rebuild trust between the two governments, and that the incident has caused Israel considerable damage among the British public, which was already not overly supportive. One official said that while the current wave of British anger would pass, when it did Israel would find itself having to pick up the pieces further “down the ladder” than it already was in British public opinion.

The issue for the British public, the official said, was not the killing of Mabhouh, but the misuse of UK passports and concern about how that could impact on them when they travel. Although the British understood that forging passports was the bread-and-butter of the world of espionage, and that their government also undoubtedly took such actions, the sin here was in being caught.

“Everybody does this,” the official said. “But if you get caught, that is bad. If you get caught, don’t expect mercy.”

And, indeed, the British press savaged Israel on Wednesday.

Kim Sengupta, writing in The Independent, said that incidents such as these would happen again, that intelligence sharing between the two countries would eventually be reinstated, but that what happened highlighted broader issues about the way the Mossad operated.

“This was the latest in a number of Mossad missions deemed to have been flawed. And it is this weakness, rather than the anger of Britain and other countries, which may curtail the tenure of Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad’s external arm. If that happens, London and Washington can pretend it was indeed their pressure which led to his dismissal,” Sengupta said.

The Guardian maintained that the investigation by the UK’s Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) concluded that the British passports were copied at Ben-Gurion Airport.

“The report by the SOCA into the use of cloned British passports in the Dubai assassination makes clear their view that this is what happened as Britons traveled through the airport in the months and years before the plot was hatched to kill the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

“The SOCA report concluded that the passports must have been cloned at the airport or at other interfaces with Israeli officialdom, such as airline offices in other countries. There were no other links between the 12 individuals whose identities were stolen.”

The Guardian accused Israel of being “an arrogant nation” and said that Miliband “all but accused the Israeli government of participation in a criminal, terrorist conspiracy.” It maintained that Miliband’s decision to expel a diplomat had a knock-on effect on the relationship between the US and Israel.

“As Mr. Miliband was speaking, the gap that had opened up between the United States and Israel over its refusal to stop building in east Jerusalem, widened still further... Both events in London and Washington are the marks of an arrogant nation that has overreached itself. The forging of British passports is the work of a country which believes it can act with impunity when planning the murder of its enemies, while simultaneously claiming to share the values of a law-based state.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard played down the affair, claiming that the spat was insignificant: “The crisis in relations between the UK and Israel, in other words, is not of enduring interest, let alone impact. It will soon be forgotten, in part because the UK is only a bit-part player in the Middle East. It is a different matter between the US and Israel. And that crisis is not about assassinations in Dubai or passport cloning, but the very substance of statehood and security.”

The Daily Mail took it upon itself to offer some advice to Israel.

“The Mail has long been a firm friend of Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East. But seldom has our friendship been more sorely tested. In an earlier age, this country would have raised hell if a foreign government had cloned British passports and used them in an assassination plot. As it is, the Israelis are lucky we’ve done no more than expel one of their diplomats.

“No country is more in need of allies than Israel, surrounded as it is by enemies. Yet by invading Lebanon, building settlements in hotly disputed areas of Jerusalem – and now resorting to terrorism – Tel Aviv seems determined to alienate every government that wishes it well. If it wants to keep the support of civilized nations, it must behave like one itself,” the paper wrote.


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