Israel diplomats were called in Thursday by the governments of Britain and Ireland to explain how passport details of citizens from both countries were used by a group of operatives suspected of killing a senior Hamas militant in Dubai.
The current delicate state of Anglo-Israeli relations, characterized in the British media this week as "being in the freezer," was illustrated by the insistence of Britain’s Foreign Office that the Israeli ambassador in London was ‘invited’ rather than ‘summoned’ for discussions.
But while there has been increasing unease in Israel over the appropriation of identities for the Dubai killing – widely blamed on Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service – the British government itself is facing some potentially tricky questions concerning how much it knew about the use of the identities of at least six Britons living in Israel by members of the hit squad who traveled on forged passports.
William Hague, the British Foreign Minister’s Shadow in the Conservative party, told the BBC Thursday that he had requested "fuller" answers about when the Foreign Office became aware that "cloned" British passports were used by suspects in the murder of alleged Hamas weapons broker Mahmoud Mahbouh on Jan. 19.
Dubai went public earlier this week with closed circuit video, photographs, and images of the forged passports of what it said was an 11-member assassination squad that arrived in Dubai, stalked Mr. Mahbouh, murdered him in his room at the Bustan Rotana Hotel, and then fled the country, all in under 24 hours.
Reports in the Gulf have suggested that police in Dubai alerted the UK that British passports were used by the killers last month, despite British claims that they were informed just hours before the news emerged in the public domain about the circumstances of the killing.
After his hour-long meeting in Dublin with a senior official in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, Israel’s ambassador in Ireland, Zion Evrony told reporters: "I told him I don't know anything about the event - beyond that, it is not customary to share the content of diplomatic meetings."
While there is zero expectation that calls by left-wing Labour MPs for the Israeli ambassador to be expelled will be heeded, the controversy comes in the wake of a difficult year or so of relations between Britain and Israel.
Contributing factors have included the continuing success of pro-Palestinian activists in London in securing arrest warrants from lower courts for Israeli military and political officials planning to visit the UK.
When Britain banned Mossad
However, the latest episode also risks reopening some older and even darker wounds stemming from British anger at previous Mossad operations on its territory, and the alleged illicit use of British passport identities by the Israelis.
Although her tough line on the PLO earned her praise from Israel in the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a freeze in relations with Mossad in 1986 after Mordechai Vanunu, the former Israeli nuclear technician who revealed Israel's nuclear weapons program, was lured by a female Israeli agent from London to Rome and then kidnapped.
Another diplomatic row was sparked later that year when an Israeli agent left eight forged British passports in an Israeli embassy envelope in a West German telephone box.
The following year, weapons used by Palestinians who killed a Palestinian cartoonist in London were traced to a property in the north of England where a Mossad agent who claimed to have infiltrated the group had been living. The British government alleged that the Mossad knew there were armed operatives in the UK and failed to notify them.
Mrs. Thatcher demanded an end to Mossad operations in the UK and it was not until 1998 that the then Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, asked Tony Blair if the agency could resume its activities there.
UK too 'pro-Arab'?
Recently however, and before the Dubai episode, there has been a deterioration in relations between the two countries, according to Rosemary Hollis, an expert on the Middle East at London’s City University.
While Britain’s Foreign service had traditionally been regarded by Israel as “hopelessly pro-Arab,” she said that when Mr. Blair came to power he deemed that moves should be made to present Britain's role in the region as more “even handed”.
“During the Bush years, the whole experience of the British was that any of their efforts, including those spearheaded by Tony Blair, to inject new momentum [into the peace process] was essentially ignored by Israel,” said Professor Hollis. “That is because they [Israel] don’t need to care what the British think. They need to care what Washington thinks.”
According to Hollis, there was great relief in British diplomatic circles when, in the post-Blair Labour government, the lead on the Middle East was taken by the new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Barack Obama came to power in the US.
“The change of government in America coincided with the arrival of Netanyahu and the combination has not been a happy one,” says Hollis.