Editor's Notes: Dissecting Dubai

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

mabhouh assassins 311 (photo credit: AP)
mabhouh assassins 311
(photo credit: AP)
Some perspective – I:           The world has not been impoverished by the death of Mahmoud Mabhouh.
Mabhouhwas the self-confessed murderer of two Israeli soldiers, Ilan Sa’adonand Avi Sasportas, in two separate kidnap-slayings which he perpetratedwith another Hamas terrorist within three months in 1989. He was afounder of Hamas’s Izzadin Kassam terror gangs. And since fleeing Gazato escape the Israeli-imposed consequences of his actions, he hadrelocated to Damascus to oversee the transfer of Iranian missiles toHamas for firing across the border at Israeli civilians.
Some perspective – II:         The operation to kill Mabhouh was not botched.
Ifwe are to believe the reports that the Mossad was responsible, this isno recurrence of the 1973 Lillehammer fiasco, when Mossad agents inNorway, assigned to avenge the Black September killings of IsraeliOlympians at the Munich Games the previous year, killed an innocentMoroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, whom they had mistaken for Palestinianterror chief Ali Hassan Salameh.
And again, if we are to believethe reports that the Mossad was responsible, it is no rerun of the 1997Amman debacle, when Mossad agents, seeking to assassinate Hamas leaderKhaled Mashaal, were apprehended after pouring toxins into Mashaal’sear, and the fallout from a failed Israeli hit conducted in broaddaylight on the streets of the Jordanian capital threatened to scupperthe three-year-old peace treaty. Political relations between Israel andJordan were already strained, and it was the quiet security partnershipthat had formed the bedrock of bilateral cooperation. When the Mashaalmess destabilized that partnership, there was no warm politicalrelationship to soften the blow, and ties were only salvaged whenIsrael supplied the antidote to save Mashaal’s life and releasedHamas’s bloodthirsty founding ideologue Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order tosecure the return of its captured agents.
In Dubai last month,Mabhouh was killed – and killed in such a way that it was notimmediately obvious his had been an unnatural demise.
His assassins, furthermore, safely made their escape, dispersing to a variety of distant destinations.
Someperspective - III:           It is a reflection of how amateurishaspects of the Dubai hit now appear that some “experts” are theorizingthat it could not possibly have been a Mossad operation. In theseanalyses, Israel’s famed intelligence service, for all its occasionalscrew-ups, simply would not have green-lighted a mission that wouldhave compromised a dozen or more key operatives – their smilingfeatures on their false passports immortalized in every globalintelligence database, and caught on closed-circuit camera after camerameandering along hotel corridors and slipping in and out of disguisesen route to Room 320 at the Al-Bustana Rotan.
Such dubiousanalyses, however, are being promulgated with hindsight – now that theDubai authorities have proved themselves to be some distance from theostensibly bumbling incompetents who, until the last few days, mighthave been relied upon in some quarters to fail to pick up the trail ofthe assassins.
Until recently, for more than three weeks afterthe Mabhouh strike, leading Israeli politicians were winking andsmiling as apparently unconfirmable accusations of Mossad involvementswirled around the region. Cats who had swallowed the cream, they gavethe smug collective impression of having so much that they wanted totell us, if only they could. This mood of self-satisfaction permeatedparts of the Hebrew media, where Mossad head Meir Dagan was hailed asan intelligence chief par excellence, who had revived the service andtaken bold action where predecessors had been unwarrantedly cautious –a man who had dared and won.
Now, though, we have lurched fromself-congratulation to castigation. Even as official Israel, true tothe traditional policies of ambiguity, chooses neither to confirm nordeny responsibility for the assassination, the suddenly roused criticsare asking bitterly whether, 13 years later, the same prime ministerunder whom the Mashaal affair had played out, again failed to ask thenecessary questions, impose the necessary amendments, take thenecessary precautions.
And master spy Dagan, last week’s hero,is this week’s villain. Now he is depicted as a man who runs adictatorship. A man who has fired a series of deputies and failed tocultivate a successorship so that none of his division chiefs iscurrently deemed capable of taking over from him. A man who has beentoo long in the job – six years, seven years, eight years – when thesensible norm for heads of such hierarchies is four or five, before thehubris and the over-confidence and sense of omnipotence set in. A manwho now ought to go.
But just as the mood of self-congratulation was exaggerated, so too, now, is the opprobrium.
Adangerous killer, who was engaged in activities certain to have costfurther innocent lives, was stopped. As with the still-unresolvedkilling of Hizbullah’s terror chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus twoyears ago, the organization for which Mabhouh worked, Hamas, was foundvulnerable, and its masterminds will have to move about still morecarefully from now on – inhibiting their capacity to wreak harm.
Whicheveragency carried out the hit, with whatever cooperation from elsewhere,it achieved its critical goals – the target was eliminated, and thesquad made its escape. The fact that it was eventually recognized thatMabhouh had been killed rather than dying of natural causes – Mashaal,too, in the botched 1997 plot, was supposed to have died a mysteriousdeath – was a failure, indeed, but one that would have fallen wellwithin the parameters of acceptable scenarios. The fact that the Dubaiauthorities proved so astute in compiling and reconciling data toidentify the hit team may have somewhat surprised the planners but,again, would not have fallen beyond the parameters of possibleanticipated fallout.
Similarly, the use of forged foreign passports was a calculated risk.
Plannersmay have considered that the obvious discrepancies between the genuineIsraeli immigrants from the West and the operatives pictured in thefalse passports bearing their names would ensure that the haplessimmigrants would quickly be able to demonstrate their innocence. Theymight have calculated that the use of British passports, even ifexposed, would cause only transitory potential damage; the currentGordon Brown-led Labor government will shortly be facing generalelections 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 warcriminals dare not enter; Ireland, where Israel’s name is routinelydragged through the mud. Not all of these considerations would havebeen the preserve of the security service; some would have been in thebailiwick of the politicians.
Again, these may or may not havebeen some of the calculations and considerations. Whatever they were,one repercussion is fairly certain: The prospects of Brown’s governmentamending Britain’s universal jurisdiction legislation have not beenmuch enhanced.
With Britain electing to formally investigate theaffair, Ireland angrily entering the fray, and every possibility thatthe Dubai authorities will produce further information, thosecalculations will now be tested. If Britain insistently demandsexplanations and answers from Israel – and there has been a fascinatingmix in the influential British media of sanctimonious criticism ofrogue Israel and awed admiration for the Mossad’s perceived daring –then explanations and answers there will have to be.
There is nodogma for handling matters such as this, no fixed rules of practice.Does one tell the full truth, half the truth, lie brazenly? Everythingis a function of the particular circumstance, the nature ofrelationships, other areas of cooperation, internal politics – theseand 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 theMabhouh assassination, are those expert hands available now? Will theybe necessary? Does today’s Israeli security apparatus have the skillsto ride out this rumpus smoothly?
We are about to find out – remembering, one last time, that this was noMashaal fiasco; it was, for all the fallout, a mission accomplished.
Someperspective – IV:     There is no such thing as a foolproof operation.Every such endeavor has its vulnerabilities, its weak points.Infallibility is for the pope.