RAMALLAH // Was it a diplomatic mess or a political success? Israeli opinion about the assassination of Mahmoud al Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel last month swings between both, even as few rule out the possibility of Mossad involvement.
The Israeli government is maintaining its standard policy of ambiguity in such cases, neither confirming nor denying involvement, a policy that enables the country to claim "credit" without taking responsibility. Not everyone has been circumspect, however. Rafi Eitan, a former high-ranking Mossad official and government minister, rejected outright that Israel had been behind the operation, in remarks to Israel army radio.
"The Mossad was not behind the assassination of Mahmoud al Mabhouh, but rather a foreign organisation that is trying to frame Israel," he told the radio station, one of very few former Mossad agents to speak on the matter and one of equally few in Israel to categorically rule out Mossad involvement. Seven people with the same names and citizenships as those from the 11 suspects named by Dubai authorities actually reside in Israel, and it seems they were victims of identity theft. British, Irish and German authorities have all suggested that passports used in the operation were forgeries or illegally obtained.
Mossad hit squads have used foreign passports in the past - most notably in a failed attempt to assassinate Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas leader, in Jordan in 1997 - and Israel has fallen afoul of several countries because of that practice. After the botched attempt at Mr Meshaal's life in 1997, Israel had to apologise to Canada because its two agents were carrying stolen Canadian passports. Before that, Israel was forced to apologise to Britain when forged British passports were discovered in a phone booth in Bonn in 1979, apparently for Mossad use in an illicit arms deal with China, while a major diplomatic row broke out in 2004 after two Mossad agents in New Zealand were arrested trying to acquire real passports.
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, said he did not expect any diplomatic fallout from the affair, at least with Britain. "I think Britain recognises that Israel is a responsible country and that our security activity is conducted according to very clear, cautious and responsible rules of the game. Therefore we have no cause for concern," Mr Lieberman told Israel army radio yesterday.
Not all commentators agreed with him, however. Writing in the Haaretz newspaper, columnist Amir Oren, argued that the operation was proving to be a "diplomatic mess" that, just like the 1997 attempt in Jordan, was happening under Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who had to take ultimate responsibility. Mr Oren called for the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, to be sacked as a consequence.
It is highly unlikely, however, that any such action will be taken. By and large, opinion in Israel is that if the operation was indeed a Mossad operation, it was fairly successful, leaving very little tangible evidence behind that would tie Israel to the murder. "I think it was a successful operation," said Yossi Melman, the Haaretz intelligence correspondent, yesterday. Mr Melman said only a few intelligence agencies are capable of executing such an "elaborate" operation, and "the Mossad is one of them". Barring any clear evidence tying Israel with the assassination, Mr Melman said, the fallout from the operation would be negligible. "The ramifications, mainly on the political and diplomatic front, can be controlled".
The veteran Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh was killed in his Dubai hotel room on the evening of January 20. On Monday, naming 11 suspects and showing video surveillance footage of them, Dubai police said the gang had all left Dubai within hours of the assassination. A further six people have since been named as possible co-conspirators. Al Mabhouh was involved in the 1987 capture and killing of two Israel soldiers, for which he has been wanted in Israel after fleeing the country. But even if the Israeli military regularly undertakes purely punitive operations in the occupied territories, the sheer size and complexity of this operation, if indeed the Mossad was involved, suggests that mere vengeance could not have been the sole objective.
"He didn't become a target because of something he did when he was young, 20 years ago," said Mr Melman. "He was chosen as a target because he was identified as a central figure in relations between Iran and Hamas." @Email:email@example.com