Editor's Notes: Dissecting Dubai

Just as the previous mood of self-congratulation was overheated and ill-advised, so too, now, is the opprobrium.

February 19, 2010 17:19
This combination image made from undated photos re

mabhouh assassins 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Some perspective – I:           The world has not been impoverished by the death of Mahmoud Mabhouh.

Mabhouh was the self-confessed murderer of two Israeli soldiers, Ilan Sa’adon and Avi Sasportas, in two separate kidnap-slayings which he perpetrated with another Hamas terrorist within three months in 1989. He was a founder of Hamas’s Izzadin Kassam terror gangs. And since fleeing Gaza to escape the Israeli-imposed consequences of his actions, he had relocated to Damascus to oversee the transfer of Iranian missiles to Hamas for firing across the border at Israeli civilians.

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Some perspective – II:         The operation to kill Mabhouh was not botched.

If we are to believe the reports that the Mossad was responsible, this is no recurrence of the 1973 Lillehammer fiasco, when Mossad agents in Norway, assigned to avenge the Black September killings of Israeli Olympians at the Munich Games the previous year, killed an innocent Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, whom they had mistaken for Palestinian terror chief Ali Hassan Salameh.

And again, if we are to believe the reports that the Mossad was responsible, it is no rerun of the 1997 Amman debacle, when Mossad agents, seeking to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, were apprehended after pouring toxins into Mashaal’s ear, and the fallout from a failed Israeli hit conducted in broad daylight on the streets of the Jordanian capital threatened to scupper the three-year-old peace treaty. Political relations between Israel and Jordan were already strained, and it was the quiet security partnership that had formed the bedrock of bilateral cooperation. When the Mashaal mess destabilized that partnership, there was no warm political relationship to soften the blow, and ties were only salvaged when Israel supplied the antidote to save Mashaal’s life and released Hamas’s bloodthirsty founding ideologue Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order to secure the return of its captured agents.

In Dubai last month, Mabhouh was killed – and killed in such a way that it was not immediately obvious his had been an unnatural demise.

His assassins, furthermore, safely made their escape, dispersing to a variety of distant destinations.

Some perspective - III:           It is a reflection of how amateurish aspects of the Dubai hit now appear that some “experts” are theorizing that it could not possibly have been a Mossad operation. In these analyses, Israel’s famed intelligence service, for all its occasional screw-ups, simply would not have green-lighted a mission that would have compromised a dozen or more key operatives – their smiling features on their false passports immortalized in every global intelligence database, and caught on closed-circuit camera after camera meandering along hotel corridors and slipping in and out of disguises en route to Room 320 at the Al-Bustana Rotan.

Such dubious analyses, however, are being promulgated with hindsight – now that the Dubai authorities have proved themselves to be some distance from the ostensibly bumbling incompetents who, until the last few days, might have been relied upon in some quarters to fail to pick up the trail of the assassins.

Until recently, for more than three weeks after the Mabhouh strike, leading Israeli politicians were winking and smiling as apparently unconfirmable accusations of Mossad involvement swirled around the region. Cats who had swallowed the cream, they gave the smug collective impression of having so much that they wanted to tell us, if only they could. This mood of self-satisfaction permeated parts of the Hebrew media, where Mossad head Meir Dagan was hailed as an intelligence chief par excellence, who had revived the service and taken bold action where predecessors had been unwarrantedly cautious – a man who had dared and won.

Now, though, we have lurched from self-congratulation to castigation. Even as official Israel, true to the traditional policies of ambiguity, chooses neither to confirm nor deny responsibility for the assassination, the suddenly roused critics are asking bitterly whether, 13 years later, the same prime minister under whom the Mashaal affair had played out, again failed to ask the necessary questions, impose the necessary amendments, take the necessary precautions.

And master spy Dagan, last week’s hero, is this week’s villain. Now he is depicted as a man who runs a dictatorship. A man who has fired a series of deputies and failed to cultivate a successorship so that none of his division chiefs is currently deemed capable of taking over from him. A man who has been too long in the job – six years, seven years, eight years – when the sensible norm for heads of such hierarchies is four or five, before the hubris and the over-confidence and sense of omnipotence set in. A man who now ought to go.

But just as the mood of self-congratulation was exaggerated, so too, now, is the opprobrium.

A dangerous killer, who was engaged in activities certain to have cost further innocent lives, was stopped. As with the still-unresolved killing of Hizbullah’s terror chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus two years ago, the organization for which Mabhouh worked, Hamas, was found vulnerable, and its masterminds will have to move about still more carefully from now on – inhibiting their capacity to wreak harm.

Whichever agency carried out the hit, with whatever cooperation from elsewhere, it achieved its critical goals – the target was eliminated, and the squad made its escape. The fact that it was eventually recognized that Mabhouh had been killed rather than dying of natural causes – Mashaal, too, in the botched 1997 plot, was supposed to have died a mysterious death – was a failure, indeed, but one that would have fallen well within the parameters of acceptable scenarios. The fact that the Dubai authorities proved so astute in compiling and reconciling data to identify the hit team may have somewhat surprised the planners but, again, would not have fallen beyond the parameters of possible anticipated fallout.

Similarly, the use of forged foreign passports was a calculated risk.

Planners may have considered that the obvious discrepancies between the genuine Israeli immigrants from the West and the operatives pictured in the false passports bearing their names would ensure that the hapless immigrants would quickly be able to demonstrate their innocence. They might have calculated that the use of British passports, even if exposed, would cause only transitory potential damage; the current Gordon Brown-led Labor government will shortly be facing general elections it is widely expected to lose. There might have been a “davka” aspect to the choice of countries whose passports were abused – Britain, where universal jurisdiction means alleged Israeli war criminals dare not enter; Ireland, where Israel’s name is routinely dragged through the mud. Not all of these considerations would have been the preserve of the security service; some would have been in the bailiwick of the politicians.

Again, these may or may not have been some of the calculations and considerations. Whatever they were, one repercussion is fairly certain: The prospects of Brown’s government amending Britain’s universal jurisdiction legislation have not been much enhanced.

With Britain electing to formally investigate the affair, Ireland angrily entering the fray, and every possibility that the Dubai authorities will produce further information, those calculations will now be tested. If Britain insistently demands explanations and answers from Israel – and there has been a fascinating mix in the influential British media of sanctimonious criticism of rogue Israel and awed admiration for the Mossad’s perceived daring – then explanations and answers there will have to be.

There is no dogma for handling matters such as this, no fixed rules of practice. Does one tell the full truth, half the truth, lie brazenly? Everything is a function of the particular circumstance, the nature of relationships, other areas of cooperation, internal politics – these and a host of other factors.

When the Mashaal affair exploded, then-Mossad chief Danny Yatom immediately came clean to the Jordanians, and other experienced Israeli operators helped mop up. If, yet again, we are to believe the reports that the Mossad was responsible for the Mabhouh assassination, are those expert hands available now? Will they be necessary? Does today’s Israeli security apparatus have the skills to ride out this rumpus smoothly?

We are about to find out – remembering, one last time, that this was no Mashaal fiasco; it was, for all the fallout, a mission accomplished.

Some perspective – IV:     There is no such thing as a foolproof operation. Every such endeavor has its vulnerabilities, its weak points. Infallibility is for the pope.

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