LONDON // The election of a new government in Britain has failed to end a simmering diplomatic row with Israel over the murder of a Hamas leader in Dubai, it emerged yesterday. Britain expelled the Mossad bureau chief at Israel's London embassy two months ago because forged UK passports were used by almost half of the team of assassins who killed Mahmoud al Mabhouh in his Dubai hotel room in January.
David Miliband, then the foreign secretary in the Labour Party government, made it clear to Avigdor Lieberman, his Israeli counterpart, that a new Mossad chief would be allowed to take up the vacant post at the embassy only if the British had a written promise that UK passports would never be used again in such an operation. According to a report in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel is refusing to put such an assurance in writing because to do so would be at least a tacit admission that it was responsible for the Dubai hit - something it steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny.
"There is an impasse," said a senior diplomatic source in London. "The UK government was genuinely enraged that its passports could be used in this way. "It is felt that the Israelis have been biding their time, hoping that the election in Britain would be won by the Conservatives, who are regarded as more friendly towards Israel than Gordon Brown and the Labour Party." Now that the Conservatives are leading a coalition government in the UK, the diplomat said the row might be resolved quite quickly when the new government gets its feet under the table.
"Much will depend on the attitude of the new foreign secretary," he added. "But with 'talks about talks' resuming between the Palestinians and Israel, the UK is unlikely to want the Dubai affair to impede any part it can play in bringing the two sides together." However, as of yesterday, a spokesman at the foreign office in London said there had been no change in the situation since the Conservative William Hague had taken over as foreign secretary from Mr Miliband.
A source said: "Things have not changed yet, but it is early days in the life of the new government." Police in Dubai this month named five more suspects in the assassination, bringing the total to 32. Of these, 14 carried UK passports, most of them of innocent Britons living in Israel who are believed to have had their passports cloned at Tel Aviv airport. A 33rd suspect has since been named in press reports as being the holder of a genuine UK passport.
"We look to Israel to rebuild the trust we believe is required for the full and open relationship we would like," a foreign office spokesman said. "We have asked for specific assurances from Israel, which would clearly be a positive step towards rebuilding that trust. Any Israeli request for the diplomat to be replaced would be considered against the context of these UK requests." In an interview with The Times in London, Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, confirmed that bilateral talks on "these issues" would begin only after the recent election.
On post-Dubai relations between Britain and Israel, Mr Prosor added somewhat enigmatically: "I think there is an understanding of what has to be done, on the one hand. On the other hand, the general feeling is that British citizens, through passports and other things, shouldn't be put in the forefront of this." At the time of the expulsion, Mr Miliband told the House of Commons that the cloning of UK passports was "intolerable" and showed "a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom".
Mr Miliband demanded that the Israelis put their assurance in writing because he was believed to be wary of any verbal assurances they may offer in the wake of an incident in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. At the time, she shut down Mossad operations in the UK after evidence emerged from an investigation in Germany that the agency planned to use British passports in operations against Palestinians living abroad.
Mrs Thatcher only allowed the London bureau to reopen after the Israeli government had given her verbal assurances that the episode would not be repeated. After the use of UK passports in the Dubai murder and, according to the British government and UAE police, "compelling evidence" that Israel was behind the plot, there remain grave doubts in diplomatic circles that even a written guarantee from the Israelis would be of any use.
"The one hope is that by creating such a fuss by getting them to put it in writing, it might at least give Mossad pause for thought before trying it again in future," a foreign office source said. email@example.com