Badge of Shame

Though the Dubai affair is no longer the focus of public attention, this does not accurately reflect the reality. The January assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, which since February the Dubai authorities have suspected was carried out by the Mossad, caused a great deal of damage to the State of Israel, regardless of whether this suspicion - which Israel has neither confirmed nor denied - is justified or baseless. At this point, the consequences of publicizing the assassins' methods of operation, as presented by the Dubai police, are sufficient. Dubai turned to Interpol; England and Australia sent investigators to interrogate Israelis with dual citizenship whose names appeared on the passports used by those suspected of carrying out the hit.

This week the former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, visited Israel. Among other things, he met with former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy for a discussion, the content of which has not been revealed. Afterward, during another conversation, his pleasant expression hardened when asked about the use of Australian passports in the Dubai affair. Evans held himself back to avoid deviating from the version routinely used by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith: If Israeli responsibility is proven, it will be considered an "unfriendly act."

The message is clear: Friends who don't act like friends will receive the relevant security and diplomatic treatment.

Certain sources who presume to know are whispering that the heads of moderate states and intelligence services, including Arab ones, are pleased about Mabhouh's assassination. Such comments still do not offset the overt blow to the honor of a relatively friendly Arab nation, Dubai. Its hospitality was exploited not only by Mabhouh through his activities mediating between Iran and Hamas, but by those who assassinated him as well.

The publication of dozens of images of those whom the Dubai police claim are Israelis in disguise seems to have been meant to signal that in Dubai they are aware that not all of them were part of the squad that killed Mabhouh. If the Mossad really was active in Dubai, with the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, those responsible for the price now being paid are Netanyahu and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. In the book "Man in the Shadows" by Halevy, Dagan's predecessor, he talks about two prime ministers who studied the details of Mossad operations before approving them. One was Yitzhak Rabin, who before one operation even observed the nighttime training of two fighters. The other was Netanyahu, in the wake of the Meshal affair, at least until Levy begged him to stop doing so.

Despite the efforts of spokespeople and journalists to downplay the gravity of the damage to Israel and the Mossad, and to protect Dagan's prestige, he should be held to the same tough standards he demanded of others in cases involving potential or actual mishaps. As head of the Mossad, Dagan has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of operational activity around him - one which has charmed ministers, members of the Knesset Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services (who visit the Mossad monthly) and even the most skeptical critics. This is a well known human phenomenon, something to which even journalists are not immune: cooperation creates paralysis.

The spotlight that Dubai turned on the passports and credit cards allegedly used by the assassins and their colleagues is liable to paralyze whichever organization sent them. A handler of agents, a courier, an assassin, a bogus director of a commercial firm from some country or other, all need reliable documents - whether original or fixed up good as new, secondhand from a spy - of their present identity and the history attached to their cover story: from their birth through any military service, their studies up to their professional status, and preferably from a country whose language they speak without an accent. Without such documentation, they are like astronauts without a space suit, doomed to remain in the spaceship.

It is possible, in an emergency, to reach a destination by entering through somewhere other than the front door - by parachute, by submarine, by illegally crossing the border. But at any moment a government representative is liable to demand that the wayfarer identify himself. An amateur forgery, an outdated document, a pin that has not yet rusted, a stamp from the wrong district, a signature of an official who has been replaced, a serial number belonging to another year or that has already appeared on a previous document - all these details are liable to give their bearers away.

At some espionage agencies, those in charge of documentation are given the rank of brigade commander - parallel to a brigadier general. So the Dubai affair not only got Israel into trouble with those countries which suspect it used their passports; it is also a badge of shame in terms of forged documentation.

Command of the Mossad's various departments requires careful study of the profession. A short, superficial period of overlap is not enough. An heir to Dagan should be appointed already. Looking at the current senior Mossad officials, the heads of two operational divisions stand out as candidates: R., the scion of a well known Jezreel Valley family with security and literary credentials, and D., who came to the Mossad from working on submarines.

If Netanyahu, in consultation with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, were to decide that the question of Mossad leadership will be solved through an internal appointment, he could make that decision already. But the two of them, behaving like politicians, will probably wait until the last minute - in other words, until the next chief of staff needs to be appointed, and the disappointed loser (Benny Ganz or Yoav Gallant) will be compensated with heading Mossad.