British government ministers - Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson - landed a heavy blow on Israel Tuesday by expelling a diplomat from the Israeli embassy in London (who according to news reports was the head of the Mossad mission there). The minister condemned Israel and warned Britons of what may happen to their passports when they receive visas or encounter immigration officers. The move was coordinated with other countries - Germany, France, Ireland and possibly Australia - and may signal the start of an avalanche.
This is a blow to Israeli arrogance on all levels. First, the promise made by Shimon Peres to Geoffrey Howe in 1987 that British passports would no longer be used for Israeli intelligence operations was apparently no longer in effect. William Hague, the foreign secretary in the conservatives' shadow government who may replace Miliband in two months if David Cameron wins the elections, is the one who reminded parliament about Peres' promise to Howe.
Second, it shows the negligence of whoever planned the assassination of Hamas' Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by ignoring the fact that the Dubai authorities are sensitive about any damage to their hospitality. Also, the investigative authorities there are capable.
Finally, it appears that the perpetrators assumed that generous administrative assistance, albeit lacking in substance, to the agents of SOCA, Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency, meant that there would be no repercussions.
The close and intense intelligence cooperation between Israel and Britain in the war against Islamist terrorism only exacerbated and justified British anger at Israel for using British passports as if they were its own. By doing this, Israel also threatened to incriminate Britain as a silent partner in its activities.
A British agent using an Israeli passport to track down an IRA cell would not meet with much Israeli sympathy. The massive use of borrowed identities of citizens of a foreign country is no different, in principle, than a plane entering that country's air space without permission.
Miliband's announcement in parliament offered a glimpse into British decision-making and exposed the serious shortcomings in the way things are done in Israel. The three ministers are responsible for the security and defense services. The Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, also known as MI6, is answerable to the foreign secretary and must coordinate with him or with his top deputies operations that may affect foreign affairs.
The Security Service, the MI5, answers to the home secretary, as do the police. The prime minister has overall responsibility, and his office also helps coordinate intelligence.
In the British way of doing things, were a mishap to happen in an MI6 operation (the parallel to the Mossad), the expectation would be that the foreign secretary would resign. A similar step by the home secretary would be expected if there were a problem at MI5, the parallel to the Shin Bet, or at the police.
In the political culture of the United States, for example, the expectation is for a senior official to resign. President John F. Kennedy highlighted the difference between London and Washington when he asked the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, to resign after the agency's failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Dulles was then in his eighth year on the job, just as Mossad head Meir Dagan is now.
Only in Israel is no one responsible, whether at the political or operational levels. The government is hesitant to push Dagan to resign; it doesn't want this to seem like an admission of the Mossad's involvement in Mabhouh's assassination. The minister charged with intelligence affairs, Dan Meridor, is not held in high regard. The artificial opposition, from the former Mossad employee Tzipi Livni to the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, salutes and remains silent.
But there is no need to go into the troubling details: Overall responsibility lies with Netanyahu. He's the one who did not check things fully, did not weigh the risks and rewards, and eroded Israel's diplomatic standing around the world.
The Mossad mission in London, which works openly vis-a-vis its hosts in matters of foreign relations, has good results to show for its activities. The blow to the mission now, if indeed the person who heads the mission was expelled, will pass. But the Mossad and border control at Ben-Gurion International Airport are now infamous, and it will be hard to shake the stigma. The sole consolation to retired Mossad agents is that this did not occur on the watch of Dagan's predecessor, Ephraim Halevy, a London native.
Israel's ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, who was director general of the Foreign Ministry when Dagan was careful to update then foreign minister Silvan Shalom, knows a thing or two about the links between Mossad operations and the work of the Foreign Ministry. But even a person like Prosor, an artillery battalion commander in the reserves and a loyal figure in the security establishment, did not manage to break down the walls of the committee of service heads and restore the Foreign Ministry director general to his seat on that committee.
The person supremely responsible is the direct boss of the heads of the services - the prime minister. He must bear the responsibility. But have no fear: Netanyahu never took responsibility and does not intend to do so now.
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