LONDON - The last time it was revealed that Israeli agents were using British passports, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher put her iron foot down. There was no intelligence exchange between the countries for a decade, and no Mossad station in London until its reestablishment here only a couple of years ago.
This time, with no one really doubting that Israel was behind the Dubai assassination of Hamas arms dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, or that Mossad agents used fake passports from the United Kingdom and other states - Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been compelled, reluctantly, to express diplomatic indignation. Even initially sympathetic media outlets became outraged in their tone over last week's passport scandal, and since it is election season, the Conservative party leader, David Cameron, seized on the episode as a handy stick with which to beat Brown and his government.
Thus the Israeli ambassador was called in to provide explanations at the Foreign Office. Obviously, Ron Prosor had none to give, and the meeting was brief, though still, it should be said, convivial. No threats were leveled, apparently. There is still a long way to go down the carefully graded list of diplomatic demarche before anything serious will happen to bilateral relations.
Similarly, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's 45-minute meeting with his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman in Brussels this week was just for show. The British don't take Lieberman seriously and have never asked to speak to him on any matter of genuine importance.
Of course, if further evidence of Israel's involvement in Dubai is uncovered, Jerusalem might have to own up discreetly, perhaps provide a few operational details. Some cooperation with the investigations of the Serious Organized Crime Agency and the Metropolitan Police might help placate Whitehall. A reprimand by the British government might follow, or a member of Israel's London embassy staff could agree to be made a scapegoat. But these are all diplomatic niceties, distractions from the real business afoot.
Mabhouh's absence may slow down arms shipments from Iran to Gaza, but the fallout from his assassination could make it harder for Israel to confront the much more serious Iranian threat. The worst-case scenario now is for bilateral intelligence-sharing to be suspended.
While the UK relies on Israel for much of its intelligence on Iran, not to mention other areas of interest in the Middle East, Israel also needs Britain on its side with respect to Iran, particularly because of its role in the European Union. With Russia and China blocking any serious action from the UN, Israel needs an EU initiative if sanctions are really to hurt Tehran. And Britain is both a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the EU 3+3 on the Iran issue, sharing that distinction only with France.
Yet Israel-Britain relations have not been at their warmest for the last year or two. For all Brown's repetitions of how he learned to love Zionism at his preacher-father's knee, bilateral links are not as close as under Tony Blair. Partly to blame for this were last year's Gaza incursion and the Goldstone report, which the UK declined to oppose in the United Nations; the requirement to label settlement-produced goods as such in the UK; and, of course, the attempted arrests of senior Israeli figures on war crimes charges.
As murky as this whole spy story has been, one thing is clear: The passports scandal has finished off any amendment to the law on universal jurisdiction, which is what allowed arrest warrants to be issued in the UK for alleged war crimes committed elsewhere. Theoretically, the necessary change in the law has the support of a majority in the House of Commons, including the shadow cabinet and most Labor MPs. But Brown is not going to risk a rebellion so close to the polls after such a public scandal.
"Israel has put the death of one Hamas guy over its relations with the UK," complained one pro-Israel lobbyist. "Why should the government stick its neck out for Israel when it's just done this?"
Even Israel's staunchest allies in Parliament are livid. "If it was Israel, it was outrageous," fumed MP Mike Gapes, a long-time member of Labor Friends of Israel and, perhaps more significantly, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The illicit use of foreign passports, he said, "is one of the most appalling things another government can do. Our citizens around the world face the risk of being associated with an organization of criminal activity and murder."
For certain parts of the British establishment, open ties with Israel have always been awkward. One senior intelligence adviser tells of how he could not meet his Israeli counterparts at his office as it was frowned upon by his superiors, and was thus expected to receive intelligence from the Israelis in the backrooms of pubs and restaurants.
For now, Israeli diplomats in London can afford to be sanguine. But while the secret ties will remain strong, they will remain just that - secret, even shameful.
Israelis tire of being compared with apartheid South Africa, but they should remember that Britain once had clandestine intelligence-sharing links with Pretoria as well. That didn't make South African leaders welcome in London, even without the threat of arrest hanging over them. Jerusalem should be wary of becoming another dirty secret.
Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
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