The evidence suggesting that British passports were used by members of the team responsible for killing Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is causing concern at the possibility of a new diplomatic row between Israel and the UK. Such a row would come at a time of already strained relations between the two countries, because of the failure of the British government to take firm action to end the possibility of the arrest of Israeli officials in Britain on suspicion of ‘war crimes.’
Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged to carry out a full investigation into the affair.
A British Foreign Office Spokesman quoted earlier in the London Daily Telegraph earlier this week said that the authorities “believe the passports used were fraudulent and have begun our own investigation.” If the killers of Mabhouh were indeed Israelis, the unauthorized use of foreign passports will come as no surprise. It has been a much noted aspect in the known operations of Israel’s external intelligence services in recent years.
The two men apprehended following the failed attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman in 1997, for example, were found to be carrying forged Canadian passports.
A diplomatic row also erupted between Israel and New Zealand in 2004, after two Israeli citizens were convicted of passport fraud in Auckland. The case resulted in the suspension of top-level contacts between the two countries for a short period of time.
Israel is understood to have offered guarantees to the authorities of both countries that their documents would not be used in future operations.
Some reports in the British media have raised additional questions over the future of British-Israeli intelligence sharing in light of the latest incident.
The British and Israeli intelligence services are thought to cooperate closely in a variety of areas of common interest – including on the Iranian nuclear program, and in the fight against Sunni ‘Global Jihad’ organizations.
The warnings of major diplomatic fallout are probably overblown.
While the British government (and the governments of France and Ireland, whose passports were also reportedly used in the operation) will be understandably angry, past experience shows that disputes in this area tend to be treated as belonging to the special, sealed-off category of ‘national security.’ Where states have good reasons to maintain healthy ties with one another, such incidents are rarely allowed to muddy the waters for long.
Normal relations between Israel and New Zealand were quietly restored in 2005, for example. In the British context, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the closing of the Mossad station in London following the kidnapping of nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu on British soil in 1987.
But while Thatcher’s anger over this case was known to be deep, she limited her retribution, not allowing a major rift with Israel. She also remained among the most pro-Israeli of British prime ministers.
Co-operation between the British and Israeli intelligence services at the present time is of mutual benefit. Britain is among the western countries most concerned at the possibility of the emergence of a nuclear Iran. The UK has extensive interests and involvement in the Middle East. It has proved a target of particular interest to al-Qaida.
Bilateral cooperation in relevant areas is not a matter of altruism, passing mood or sentiment. It makes sense because no single state has a monopoly on intelligence. Close liaison with allies can make up for shortfalls in knowledge. One intelligence expert described such relationships between services as “pay as you go propositions”- that is, mutual suspicion exists, the basis of the relationship is one of interests, but as long as there is a prospect of mutual gain, the communications continue. The transnational nature of the current terrorist threat, meanwhile, makes the need for cooperation between targeted countries yet more relevant. None of this is changed because of the sudden spotlight cast by the events in Dubai.
Such cooperation, by the way, is not limited to democracies. The Israeli security services also communicate on relevant subjects with a variety of states across the Middle East, including some with whom Jerusalem has no diplomatic relations. The UAE, where the killing of Mabhouh took place, is itself one such country. Mutual opposition to Iranian subversion provides the durable glue in that relationship.
In short, despite the headlines, lasting fallout from the allegations of use by the Israeli intelligence services of forged foreign passports will probably be minimal. The major direction of relations between countries is forged on shared interests and affinities, and is unlikely to be swayed by such events. In the more specific world of intelligence-sharing and liaison, meanwhile, there are ample, urgent reasons for cooperation between relevant bodies to continue – so it is likely to do so.