A new low was reached Tuesday in the traditionally close but often rocky British-Israeli relationship when Britain announced that it was expelling an Israeli diplomat following the use of forged British passports in the Dubai assassination of a senior Hamas official in January.
The cold war-style sanction was deployed after a British investigation determined that passports were forged when British citizens passed through airports on their way to Israel, although the probe was unable to definitively confirm the involvement of Israeli intelligence.
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, was summoned to the headquarters of Britain’s Foreign Office on Monday to be told the results of Britain’s inquiry, for which investigators were sent to Israel this month to meet eight Israeli-British dual nationals whose identities were used in the Jan. 20 assassination. Britain’s Foreign Minister, David Miliband was due to address Parliament this afternoon.
While Britain has in the past reserved such action for states like Libya and Iran many see this as only a symbolic warning to its ally Israel – not a sweeping denunciation. However, precisely because of the closeness of the Israeli-British relationship, there could be more serious friction if the controversy is not laid to rest, says Yossi Mekelberg, an Israeli analyst at the London foreign policy think tank Chatham House.
“It is serious. If, as a country, your passports are misused or faked, then it is not something you can ignore and it has created practical problems. Israel has got away internationally with doing certain things in the past because it is a democracy," he says, calling the expulsion Britain's way of telling Israel, "you misbehaved."
But there is a cumulative effect, he adds – and one that may play out in less public avenues.
“Between Britain and Israel there is cooperation on so many different levels. In a globalized world Britain can decide that something like this can end with an expulsion – but behind closed doors there can be repercussions," says Mr. Mekelberg. "The closer a relationship is, then the more painful the sanctions can be.”
Last expulsion: Iranian diplomats in June 2009
While action from London had been expected on the issue – the most serious cause of friction yet over a recent period of sometimes strained relations between the two countries – there was still shock value in the use of a sanction Britain has traditionally only deployed against states with which it has frosty relations.
The last time Britain expelled foreign diplomats from its soil was in June 2009, when two Iranian diplomats were told to pack their bags after Tehran ordered two British diplomats out.
In some ways, the measures taken against Israel may have more in common with July 2007 when Britain kicked out four Russian diplomats following Moscow's refusal to hand over a former KGB agent accused of murdering Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by radiation poisoning in London.
Those expulsions were regarded as a peaceful warning shot of the type used when countries that normally enjoy cordial relations fail to find common ground on controversial issues.
However, the British move may now also escalate the possibility that other nations whose passports were used in the operation that led to the killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh may follow suit. They include France, Ireland, Germany, and Australia.
Firm foundation for British-Israeli ties
In London, analysts expressed surprise at the move while emphasizing that important mutual links –particularly on trade and security issues – still provide a firm foundation for enduring British-Israeli ties.
The relationship between Israel and the UK, which ruled the Mandate of Palestine between 1917 and 1948, has hit rocky patches in the past, particularly during the 1980s when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a halt to Mossad operations in Britain after an Israeli technician who blew the lid on his country’s nuclear weapons project was kidnapped by Israel after being lured from London.
“There have been ups and downs but the important thing is that within the European Union, and along with Germany and Holland, Britain was seen as being a brake on some of the more pro-Palestinian positions in the EU, while being sympathetic to Israel,” says Rory Miller, professor in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London. “While Britain and Israel may have had differences they have always been seen as allies.”
“This is a notable departure, but not one that will have a major impact on the traditional alliance which remains so important on so many levels,” he adds. “This may be a way of ensuring something is done so that relations can again fall into line.”
Israeli nationalist decries Britain's 'hypocrisy'
In public at least, British-Israeli relations appear to be in the doghouse for now, while Britons got an eye and earful of the initial reaction in some quarters of Israel Tuesday when they tuned into the 24-hour broadcaster Sky News.
Aryeh Eldad, a hard-line nationalist member of the Israeli parliament, told the channel that Israel should expel a British diplomat – possibly the military attaché - in response.
"I think [the] British are behaving hypocritically ... who are they to judge us on the war on terror? We are now cornered into this position and we are accused of doing the wrong things during our war on terrorism."