Hamas assassination: If Mossad did it, Israel wonders if it was worth it

The Hamas assassination in Dubai -- which police in the United Arab Emirates say they believe was organized by Israel's Mossad -- has Israelis wondering of the costs of targeting the Jewish state's enemies abroad outweigh the benefits.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Hamas assassination: A Palestinian girl walks out of a shop with posters depicting Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh pasted on its windows in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip on Thursday.

The Hamas assassination in Dubai has led to growing accusations about the hit squad allegedly responsible for the death of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Those charges have recast what seemed like a clean getaway into a sloppy operation – with all fingers pointing to Israel's Mossad.

The Dubai police yesterday added some 15 names to the list of suspects in the assassination, at least 10 of whom share the names of Austrailan, Irish, and English immigrants to Israel. While Israeli officials keep mum, and local analysts have avoided explicitly assigning responsibility to Mossad, there's a debate under way about whether the death of a man who Israel alleges was brokering arms deals for Hamas was worth the diplomatic and public relations fallout.

England, France, the European Union, and now Australia have told Israel they're worried about the apparent use of forged versions of their passports in the killing. On Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith summoned Israel's ambassador there to discuss accusations that the perpetrators had used three falsified Australian passports. He told reporters that if Israeli involvement was confirmed, Australia ``would not regard that as an act of a friend."

"The understandings of whether an operation was successful or a failure are not clear as clear as they use to be," said Ronen Bergman, the author of The Secret War With Iran. ''The recent week has proven to us that it's not enough for the operation to be successful, the target to be dead, and the perpetrators to come home safely.''

Bergman speculated that the organization behind the assassination would have to suspend plans for future operations because it underestimated the ability of the Dubai police to unravel events surrounding the killing.


The police in Dubai, the second-largest member of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), say they are "99 percent" certain that Mossad was involved and claim to have evidence that proves this, though that information has been held back from the public so far.

The European Union this week condemned the use of forged passports in the Dubai killing, but stopped short of accusing Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has refused to deny or confirm Israel's involvement, except to say that no conclusive evidence has emerged linking Israel to the assassination.

At once celebrated, infamous, and feared, Israel's Mossad spy agency hit a low after the botched attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997. Agents were arrested in Amman after they injected poison into Mr. Meshaal's ear. King Hussein demanded Mossad deliver an antidote for the poison in exchange for the agents' safety, which it did. The agents were later freed, and Israel released Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Sheikh Yassin was later assassinated by Israel.

In recent years, the clandestine agency that operates beyond Israel's borders is believed to have returned to its old form. It is thought to be responsible for a series of operations that experts credit with enhancing Israeli deterrence: the bombing of a Syrian nuclear installation in 2006 and the 2008 car bombing of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh.

On Tuesday, Dan Halutz, a former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, said the killing of Mr. Mabhouh further strengthened Israeli deterrence. Mabhouh was considered to be a key figure in the shipment of weapons from Iran to Gaza.

Bad time for crisis

But deterrence should not be the only consideration, say critics. Israel can ill afford a crisis with European allies or a deterioration of its international image at a time when the peace process with Arab neighbors is frozen and charges of war crimes during the Gaza war 13 months ago are about to be considered at the United Nations.

" think we recovered our deterrence, but it is costing us on the diplomatic level,'' says Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. "These attacks are being seen as illegitimate, even by Israel's friends. Here you have a James Bond operation that is totally exposed and associated with Israel at the same time that Israel is seen as not respecting international law and international organizations."

Liel said that while Israel's bilateral ties with the countries involved are robust enough to survive, it may lose support on critical UN votes.

Still, there are many in Israel who believe that the ends justify the means of extrajudicial killings. Arieh Eldad, a parliament member from the right-wing National Union Party, says Israel has "every right" to fight terrorist threats by sending its "long arm" to carry out assassinations abroad.

Though Mr. Eldad is a member of the parliament's defense and foreign affairs committee, he says he was unfamiliar with Mr. Mabhouh and could not judge the payoff.

"If the terrorist is a ticking bomb sometimes it is worthwhile to neutralize him, even if the price is high," he says. "I can't say whether the cost-effectiveness was calculated or not.''

(Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the title of Mr. Bergman's book, The Secret War With Iran.)

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