Gwynne Dyer: Mossad's latest blunder
Everybody assumes that Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, carried out the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas commander, in Dubai last month.
The Israeli government will neither confirm nor deny it, but the average Israeli citizen is sure of it, and quite pleased by it. After all, who else was going to go after him?
Well, theoretically it could have been the rival Palestinian political organization, Fatah, which has been more or less at war with Hamas for almost three years now. (Fatah runs the West Bank; Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.)
Proponents of this theory argue that the Dubai hit was too clumsy and sloppy to have been a Mossad operation.
Would any serious spy agency put 11 people on a hit team? Why would seven of them be travelling on British passports borrowed or stolen from British-Israeli dual citizens resident in Israel? Would they let themselves be caught repeatedly on video surveillance cameras as they set up the killing? This was just not a professional operation.
It certainly was amateur night in Dubai, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mossad was not behind it. The Institute for Espionage and Special Operations, to give its proper name, may be “legendary”, but some of its past operations have been anything but professional. Take the case of the Norwegian waiter.
In the 20 years after Palestinian terrorists massacred eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Mossad killed more than a dozen people it suspected of involvement in the operation. Most of them had some link to it, but Ahmed Bouchiki had none at all.
Bouchiki was a Moroccan immigrant to Norway who worked in a restaurant in Lillehammer. Mossad mistakenly thought he was Ali Hassan Salameh, the planner of the Munich atrocity, so an Israeli hit team murdered him as he walked home with his pregnant wife.
But the two killers committed the elementary error of driving to the airport 24 hours later in the same car they had used for the getaway (which had been spotted by the police).
They were arrested, and the woman of the pair broke down and confessed that they were working for Israel. The man had a telephone number on him which led the police to the safe house where the other three members of the team were staying. One of them had a list of instructions from Mossad on him, and they all ended up in Norwegian jails. Amateur night again.
Or take the Mossad attempt in 1997 to kill Hamas’s political chief, Khaled Meshaal. It happened in Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, but the Mossad assassins travelled there on Canadian passports borrowed from Canadian-Israeli residents with dual citizenship.
They broke into the building where Meshaal was sleeping and injected poison into his ear, but two were captured by Jordanian police and the other four took refuge in the Israeli embassy.
Jordan’s outraged King Hussein demanded the antidote to the poison, and the Israeli government reluctantly handed it over. In response to Canada’s furious protests about the use of its passports, Israel promised never to do that again. Just as it promised Britain in 1987, and New Zealand in 2004.
This time the hit team, though ridiculously large, was less incompetent: the victim died, and they all got out of Dubai safely. The fact that they left enough evidence behind for the Dubai police to figure out what happened does not exclude Mossad from consideration: it has bungled operations before.
The Dubai police say they are now “99 percent if not 100 percent sure” that Mossad was behind the murder, and most Western governments assume the same.
Four Western governments are especially angry: Britain, France, Germany and Ireland, whose passports were used in the operation. Israel will doubtless promise once more never to do that again, and the fuss will eventually die down.
The Dubai police chief, Lt.-Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has asked Interpol for a “red notice” on Mossad head Meir Dagan, the usual preliminary to an arrest warrant, but Dagan need not stay awake worrying about it. What should be causing him sleepless nights is the fact that all these killings are counter-productive.
Killing off the leaders of Hamas—and of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia resistance movement—does not improve Israel’s security. For example, it assassinated Hezbollah’s leader, Abbas al-Musawi, in 1992, and got the far more formidable Hassan Nasrallah as his successor.
It also got the revenge bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, which killed 29 and wounded 242.
The leaders who get killed are replaced by others of equal competence, the cycle of revenge gets another push, and Israel’s reputation as a responsible state takes another beating. True, Israel does nothing that the United States, Russia and several other great powers have not done when fighting insurgencies, but they are shielded by their great-power status. Like it or not, there is one law for the great powers and another for the others.
Smaller countries are expected to obey the rules. Many Israelis think they don't need to worry about this because everyone hates them anyway, but the wiser ones realise that the state’s security and prosperity still depend heavily on the goodwill of Western countries. Actions like the Dubai operation, when they become public, erode that goodwill. But the wiser Israelis are not currently in the majority.