As of this writing, Israel hasn’t acknowledged any responsibility for the January 19 assassination in Dubai of Hamas military operative Mahmoud al Mabhouh, but Israelis of every stripe are talking and writing about it as if Israeli provenance were established fact. The questions they’re asking are not who dunnit, but whether its benefits outweigh its costs, what the deed says about Israel’s moral stature and, especially, how did the vaunted screw up and leave its fingerprints all over the crime scene, turning itself into what the London Daily Telegraph now calls “The Keystone Spooks.”
In case you missed it, Mabhouh was smothered to death in a Dubai hotel room in what apparently was supposed to be a covert operation. Unfortunately for the assassins, their comings and goings were elaborately documented by surveillance cameras before and after the deed. Dubai police published their photos and details of their faked identities, falsified European passports, cheesy fake beards and all. Israel is now embroiled in diplomatic tussles with the mostly-friendly countries whose passports it used.
For many Israelis, if not most, the operation’s embarrassing aftermath doesn’t outweigh the benefits of eliminating an enemy. Eitan Haber, the unfailingly unflappable Yediot columnist and former Yitzhak Rabin speechwriter, dismissed the widespread hand-wringing and second-guessing as misplaced in a February 18 column.
This is not a great screw-up, and those who are happy at this seeming failure have no reason to be so gleeful. I am much happier that we are rid of a bitter and cruel enemy, Mr. Mabhouh, who we sought out for many years before his demise.
The bottom line for Haber is deceptively simple:
There are two questions we need to ask in this case: Was the objective — assassinating Mabhouh — achieved? The answer is yes. Were the assassins nabbed by the enemy? The answer is no.
Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, by contrast, was outraged. He sees the Dubai affair as a reflection of a growing Israeli disregard for the norms of international behavior, which is driving Israel more and more to resemble its enemies.
There was once a time when Israel longed to be a member in good standing of the community of nations. There was a time when one of its fondest goals was to end its status as a nation in quarantine, boycotted, unrecognized, unwanted, kept firmly at arm’s length. No longer. Without asking its people, without a second thought, Israel, at its highest level, has taken an executive decision. Unable to beat the forces who want to see Israel as one of the world’s primary pariah states, it has resolved to join them. Determined to take our fate into its own hands. Israel, at its highest level, has decided that the job of delegitimizing the Jewish state must not be left to foreigners and amateurs. Showing itself desperate to be a pariah state, Israel will now get it done on its own.
Yediot Ahronot commentator Ronen Bergman, one of the best-informed observers of Israel’s intelligence agencies, doesn’t think the operation was a success even on its own terms as an undercover security mission. Without entering into the moral aspects of the affair, he sees the operation’s negatives outweighing its positives from a strictly pragmatic viewpoint. As he wrote in a February 19 op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal:
The mission was technically successful. The target was eliminated — allegedly smothered by a pillow in his hotel room — and the operatives left the country within hours. But it has turned into a diplomatic nightmare for Israel. The sovereignty of Dubai was violated, and the passports of four European countries were used for the purpose of committing a crime. Several rows Israel can ill-afford are currently brewing with England, Germany and France.
He spelled out the operational calculations in greater detail in the February 19 Yediot weekend supplement (my translation):
Israeli intelligence services, and particularly the Mossad, have been credited in recent years with countless impressive, breathtaking successes. On the other hand, a number of difficult questions arise following the disclosure of the Dubai affair. That is, on the assumption that Israel is involved.
Why did they use British passports? After a courier of an Israeli clandestine agency (not the Mossad) forgot a sack of forged British passports in a telephone booth in Germany, a serious dispute broke out between the two countries. Shortly afterwards, the British discovered that Israel had been operating its own agents without Britain’s permission during the mid-1980s in a cell of Palestinian terrorists in London who killed a British citizen. British intelligence terminated the Mossad station in Britain and relations between the two countries entered an extended chill. Since the entire Israeli intelligence community has been under standing orders not to mention the name Britain, even in silent thought. If the Mossad was indeed behind the operation, why was the order changed?
Why Mabhouh? Was he really so important and central? Was removing him from the arena worth the risk in the exposure and burning of 12 agents, not to mention the diplomatic fiasco? Is it possible that past triumphs have led to a laxness in choosing targets and approving assassination? Did somebody succumb to a swelling of the ego?
What did they know about the Dubai police? If the agents’ superiors didn’t know that the authorities in Dubai have the capability to tie up the loose ends and solve the incident, then the operation must be judged at least a partial failure.
Why now? Did it really make sense right now, while the world is coming around to the Israeli position and preparing to impose sanctions on Iran, to launch an operation that so directly violates international law, using the passports of so many other countries?
Why is it that Prime Minister Netanyahu has such bad luck? Nearly all the blunders of the past 15 years took place while he was prime minister: Cyprus, Switzerland, Meshal and now, assuming that the operation was Israeli, Dubai.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).