Australia announced yesterday that it intends to expel an Israeli diplomat from Canberra as a result of its investigation into the use of forged Australian passports during the alleged assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January.
The head of Australia's Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO ), David Irvine, paid a secret visit to Israel earlier this month as part of an investigation into the use of forged Australian passports. Irvine's conclusions swayed the government in Canberra to decide that Israel was behind the passport forgery, and yesterday Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told parliament that the Mossad liaison officer in Australia would be asked to leave the country.
An investigation into the Mabhouh assassination revealed that four of the suspects had carried forged Australian passports. Australia initiated an investigation with the participation of the federal police, the relevant ministries and the country's internal security and intelligence service.
Smith told parliament that police investigators had traveled to Israel from Australia and presented him with a report on the matter on April 9. The police report was not unequivocal as to Israel's involvement in forging the passports, and the country's two intelligence services were asked to offer an opinion.
In his report to parliament, Smith said that Irvine was dispatched to Israel for several meetings with senior figures in Israel's defense establishment. On May 19 a final report was issued by the Australian intelligence services, placing responsibility for the forgeries on Israel. The report concluded that Australian citizens whose passports were forged had not been involved in the assassination of Mabhouh, but had fallen victim to identity theft.
Another conclusion was that the forgery was exceptionally professional and was carried out at a quality level that only a governmental intelligence agency is capable of performing.
After receiving the report, the Australian security cabinet met and approved Foreign Minister Smith's recommendation to expel the Mossad liaison officer in the country.
Israel's ambassador to Canberra, Yuval Rotem, was in Israel at the time, so a low-ranking diplomat was invited to the Australian Foreign Ministry, where he was informed that the individual would have to leave the country within a week. Following the decision, Smith informed the foreign ministers of Britain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as those of France, Germany and Ireland, whose passports were also allegedly used during the assassination.
In an unusual act, Australia informed the U.S. administration in advance on the content of its intelligence services' report and the decision to expel the Mossad liaison officer. Smith explained the action by saying that the U.S. has close ties with Israel and is an ally of Australia.
Speaking to reporters, Smith said that relations between the two countries will enter a "cooling-off period," and that cooperation on intelligence and defense matters would be limited. He added that the decision was made more with sadness rather than anger, noting that the two countries are friends but Israel's action was an unfriendly one. The Australian foreign minister said it would be necessary to rebuild confidence and trust.
The Australian announcement was received with shock in Israel, and sources at the Foreign Ministry described it as "a very serious crisis."
"Israel expresses sadness at this Australian step, which is not in line with the nature and quality of ties between the two countries," a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry read.
For its part, Australia appears to be seeking to contain the crisis. Smith stressed that the action against Israel affects only the security-intelligence aspect of the mutual relations, and will not alter Australia's stance toward Israel or the conflict in the Middle East. Smith said that Australia will not stop supporting Israel in UN votes.