Israel's Black Ops: Putting the 'Ass' Back in 'Assassins'

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.

The bottom line for Haber is deceptively simple:

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.

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:

This story "Israel's Black Ops: Putting the 'Ass' Back in 'Assassins'" was written by J.J. Goldberg.

He spelled out the operational calculations in greater detail in the February 19 Yediot weekend supplement (my translation):

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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