Was Mossad behind Dubai assassination? Israel foreign minister isn't saying

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declined Wednesday to confirm or deny whether Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, was involved in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File
Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attended a meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, in this Feb. 8 file photo.

Amid increasing heat over revelations that at least half of the names of the alleged assassins who killed a top Hamas operative in Dubai last month belong to immigrants to Israel, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Wednesday that there was no proof implicating the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.

But Mr. Lieberman did not explicitly deny that the assassination of alleged Hamas arms procurer, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was the work of the Mossad, saying in an interview with Israel's Army radio that Israel holds to a "policy of ambiguity" on discussing intelligence issues.

"I don't know why we take it for granted that it was Israel or Mossad that used those passports or the identities of that British citizen. It's just not correct. Why are we in such a hurry to take all kinds of tasks upon ourselves?" Lieberman said.

Hit squad video released

Dubai police released a video, photographs and names on Monday of what they said was an 11-member hit squad, all of whom were holders of European passports. After the pictures with the attached names were published on Tuesday, it became apparent that six of the names belong to immigrants to Israel who originally came from, and still hold citizenship ship in, Britain, Ireland, and France. Several of them located by the Israeli press were dumbfounded: their identities had been used, but the passport photos were of completely different people.

"I'm in shock – I just don't know how something like this could happen," Paul John Keely, one of the dual British-Israeli citizens whose name was used, told the newspaper Haaretz. Mr. Keely did not return calls for comment Wednesday. "My identity was stolen or forged," another one of the six, Melvyn Mildiner, told Ynet.
Six more people, thus far unnamed, are reported to have been involved in the assassination plot.

A new, colorful chapter?

Some in the Israeli media dealt with the colorful unfolding of this story as a new chapter in the Mossad's book of debacles. In 1997, the Mossad tried to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan by injecting poison in his ear. The attempt failed, the young Israeli-Jordanian diplomatic relationship was plunged into crisis, and Benjamin Netanyahu – prime minister then as now – worked to patch up the relationship by releasing Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. (Yassin was later assassinated by Israel in 2004.)

Amir Oren, an intelligence writer for Haaretz, said that Mossad chief Meir Dagan – whose tenure Netanyahu recently extended for an eighth year, should be forced to resign. "What is needed now is a swift decision to terminate Dagan's contract and appoint a new Mossad chief," Oren wrote Wednesday. Besides having to deal with the fallout of frustration from European countries, in whose name the fabricated passports were used, Oren suggested that Israel must be more accountable to its citizens' identities. In the 1997 incident, Canadian passports were used.

"But even if whoever carried out the assassination does reach some kind of arrangement with the infuriated Western nations, it still has an obligation to its own citizens," Oren wrote.

Yossi Melman, who also writes for Haaretz and is a veteran journalist specializing in covering the Mossad, argues that to the contrary, the Mabhouh assassination is nothing like the attempt on Mashal's life. First and foremost, he says, the target was killed and no Israelis were arrested. Moreover, Israel's relationship with Jordan is not comparable to its relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), of which Dubai is a member. Israel and the UAE have no diplomatic ties, but Israelis have occasionally been allowed in the Emirates; Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer is there competing now.

"In 1997, Israel operated on the territory of a friendly Arab country with which it had long-term strategic interests. Israel agents were arrested, the target was not killed, and King Hussein was very upset. He almost swore to cut off relations with Israel," Melman says.

"On the contrary, Dubai doesn't have friendly relations with Israel. It's a hub for Iran, and most of the weapons coming here are going via Dubai. In Dubai, there are hundreds of companies which are fronts for the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards," Melman charges.

Where will the evidence lead?

He predicts that Israel might emerge with "some stains" and some diplomatic damage to repair, but not more than that. "It depends also on the magnitude of new evidence that will be emerging, which might lead Israel directly to the operation, but it doesn’t seem so at the moment," says Melman, author of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."

The assassination, presumably by the Mossad, of Hizbullah's Imad Mughniyeh two years ago is an example, Melman argues, of Dagan having "resurrected the reputation" of the spy agency.

"It is more feared than it was a decade ago after the Mashaal affair," he says. "The storm is gathering, mostly regarding these passports. But, based on past precedents, Israel will sustain the shock waves."

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