No organisation fuels more conspiracy theories than the Mossad, Israel’s much feared international spy agency — and conspiracy theories have been splashed across the front-pages of Australian newspapers today in the wake of allegations about the fraudulent use of Australian passports by Mossad agents.
The angry responses from Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith — and the issue of a summons to the Israeli ambassador — sounded a different tone to that which otherwise characterises the affable relationship between Australia and Israel.
According to security cameras in the Dubai hotel, Mossad agents spent 45 minutes in the room of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh before leaving him dead inside. There are also suggestions he was tortured. At the very least his death may not have been quick and clinical. As Mark Steven argued in newmatilda.com yesterday, al-Mabhouh is not the first Hamas operative to be killed by the Mossad but the special circumstances surrounding his death mean that this murder is having major reverberations.
The use of stolen passports has serious implications for travellers, particularly dual Israeli citizens. Many, if not all, of the passports were apparently stolen from people not involved with Israel’s covert activities or the assassination. They now have a genuine fear of imprisonment or reprisal when they next travel.
If Israel is found to be behind the passport abuses, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said "Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend". Internationally, it seems, the use of foreign passports by up to 26 Mossad agents is testing the limits of Israel’s allies. Britain and other European nations have become increasingly critical of Israel’s apparent involvement in the murder.
By flouting international norms so openly, Israel has garnered added resentment. For years now, Israel’s neighbours have been cowed by its clout and bullied at a diplomatic level.
When they were called to account for the passport fraud allegations, Israel’s ambassadors to the UK and to Australia, Ron Prosor and Yuval Rotem, were presumably treated better than the Turkish ambassador to Israel was during a recent impasse. Ahmet Oguz Celikkol was subjected to a humiliating public dressing down and was placed on a deliberately lowered sofa as the news cameras rolled. He had been summoned by Israeli authorities because a Turkish television drama depicted Israeli soldiers as "brutal".
We can, then, identify a certain degree of arrogance in Israel’s behaviour.
Officials in the Jewish state have been quoted saying they were surprised at the speed with which police investigators in Arab Dubai were able to piece together the crime. That suggests overconfidence played a pivotal role in Mossad sloppiness which may lead to the erosion of Israel’s image as a hitherto impregnable power in the region.
Dubai’s police chief has called for Mossad head Meir Dagan to be arrested if Israel is found to be behind the killing. These are strong words from a generally pliant Arab state that is staunchly pro-US and has relatively good relations with Israel. Although Dagan would never be extradited, there is a good chance that he may face arrest in other countries if he travels.
Remarkably, this is not the first time the spy agency has been implicated in similar assassination plots involving fake or stolen passports.
In 1997 Israel tried to assassinate the exiled Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in the Jordanian capital of Amman. In what was on paper an ingenious plot, Mishal was to be poisoned in the ear as an agent, posing as a passerby, brushed up against him on a street but the plot was foiled, and the would-be assassins were captured. Israel was forced by Jordan and the US to hand over an antidote to the poison. Mishal was kept alive and the Mossad’s reputation as a perfect assassin force was left tattered.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Paul McGeough, the veteran Middle East correspondent who authored an excellent book on the attempted Mishal assassination, a dual Canadian and Israeli citizen admitted to Canadian officials that he had acquiesced in the use of his passport by Mossad agents in the botched killing.
Back in 2004, Mossad spies were jailed by New Zealand for attempting to use the passport of a heavily disabled Kiwi.
There have been at least two other recordings of Mossad agents illegally using British passports, in 1979 and again in 1987. On that latter occasion, Israel promised never to repeat the indiscretion. The fact that it has continued to use British and other foreign passports suggests it has not learnt any lessons from past mistakes.
It is instructive to compare Britain’s response to the current scandal to a similar incident allegedly involving Russian spies. When Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy living under self-imposed exile in the UK, was poisoned in an upmarket London restaurant much of the evidence pointed to Moscow. British authorities lambasted their Russian counterparts for refusing to hand over four suspects in the murder. Four Russian diplomats were expelled in the process and the media had a ball reporting Russia’s new Cold War conspiracies.
It’s still unclear whether Mossad’s latest scandal will provoke spy fantasies and media conspiracy theories or whether it will prove a watershed in the long battle to keep Israel accountable for its actions.
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