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Wherever departed Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is now, he is presumably enjoying the considerable trouble the nature of his exit is causing his Israeli enemies.
The British decision to expel an unnamed Israeli diplomat following the conclusion of an investigation into the alleged use by Israel of cloned British passports in an assassination operation probably does not signal the onset of a general crisis in relations between London and Jerusalem. Still, it is not an everyday act, and the language used by the foreign secretary in announcing the expulsion was notably harsh.
This affair has so far traveled along similar lines to the last major set-to between the UK and Israel over the issue of Israeli intelligence activities overseas. In 1986, a number of forged British passports were discovered in an Israeli diplomatic pouch in West Germany. This incident was followed a year later by the apprehending of a Palestinian employed as a double agent by Israeli intelligence, together with a cache of weapons, in a northern English town. The result was the expulsion from Britain of Arie Regev, an official at the Israeli Embassy. Regev was widely regarded as the chief of the Mossad station in the UK.
Then, as now, the anger of senior British officials was real, not feigned. And the public revelations of the events meant that a response of a public nature was also inevitable. But the substantive response was a managed one. Cooperation between Israeli and British intelligence services suffered for a while. But channels of communication stayed open via Washington. Information of really crucial importance continued to be shared.
A replacement for Regev was in due course installed. After a suitable time lapse, normal cooperation was resumed.
Regarding the broader diplomatic parameters, the affair did not prevent the governments of Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major, from being among the most friendly to Israel in recent memory.
There is good reason to assume that this time, too, any real damage will be limited in duration and extent. The British defense establishment is known to be deeply and genuinely concerned by the Iranian nuclear program.
Cooperation in this area between the British and Israeli security services is extensive. Cooperation against the shared threat of Sunni jihadi organizations is also wide and deep.
Liaison between intelligence services takes place for the mutual benefit of the states concerned. It is likely that security professionals in Britain would be opposed to any real and lasting setback to their own activities (and the resulting danger to the security of British citizens) for the sake of a gesture of disapproval to Israel.
The presence in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and within the top echelons of the ruling British Labor Party of individuals adhering to strongly anti-Israel positions should be taken into account when gauging the nature of London’s move.
The decision will have been taken at the highest level, after input from all sides. Imminent elections in the UK, the need to placate the anti-Israel Labor Left and the desire to secure British Muslim support in marginal parliamentary constituencies should be factored in when considering the harshness of the language used by the foreign secretary in announcing the expulsion.
The limited nature in substantive terms of the gesture, however, suggests that those who made the final decision were taking Britain’s own diplomatic ambitions in the Middle East into account. According to Jonathan Rynhold, a specialist on British-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University, Britain wants to be seen as a player in the Middle East “peace process.” For this to be possible, it needs to maintain cordial relations with Israel.
For a variety of reasons, according to Rynhold, the UK’s standing in Israel is currently low. The failure of the British government to take action to end the use of universal jurisdiction to arrest and try Israeli officials in the UK, and the British stance on the Goldstone Report have seriously harmed Britain’s potential credibility as an honest broker in the eyes of Israelis.
Many Israeli officials today describe French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the European leader regarded as most trustworthy by Jerusalem. The diplomatic status game among leading EU countries thus may also have played a role in confining the British gesture to manageable proportions.
So the expulsion of an unnamed Israeli diplomat from the London embassy should not be dismissed as merely a routine gesture. This episode casts light on the different stances and interests within the decision-making system of a major European country.
Between the strongly anti-Israel positions of powerful people in the British political and diplomatic establishments, the more pragmatic interests of defense officials, and the ambitions of political leaders, a decision was made – this time involving harsh language and limited practical import.
Israeli officials will be aiming to move on as quick as possible from the whole affair.
They will be hoping that whatever really took place on January 19, in the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai, the ghost of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh will return no more to stir up further trouble between the Jewish state and its allies.