It was billed as the moment when, we were told, Britain would read out the riot act to Israel over Mossad's suspected link to the abuse of British passports by the killers of Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai last month.
But the first thing that the Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor did as he emerged from a meeting with the Foreign Office chief Sir Peter Ricketts last Thursday was to clarify to waiting journalists that he had come in response to an “invitation” and not summons — making a pointed distinction between being “summoned” (as in the “Iranian envoy summoned for a dressing down”) and being simply called for a coffee.
The message Mr. Prosor wanted to get out — commentators noted — was that his meeting with Sir Peter was a routine diplomatic drill and there was no need to get too excited, or read too much into it. In other words, Britain was simply going “through the motions” to calm public opinion. A similar line was coming out of Israel where ministers were said to be “confident” that for all the tough talk Britain would “do nothing” to damage its “strategic” alliance with Israel.
“The U.K. is going through the motions of outrage, but our assessment is that they will do nothing,” The Daily Telegraph reported an Israeli government source as saying. The British government, clearly embarrassed first by the disclosure about the misuse of its passports and then by Israeli bid to play down its fallout, insists that it is taking the issue “very seriously” and has ordered an investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Foreign Secretary David Miliband described the theft of identities of six Israel-based British citizens and their use in the cold-blooded murder of Mahmoud as an “outrage.”
“We want to get to the bottom of the issue of the fraudulent passports,” he said.
He also sought to counter the impression given by Mr. Prosor that his meeting with Sir Patrick was just a fireside chat.
“Sir Peter made clear to Mr. Prosor how seriously we take any suggestion of the fraudulent use of British passports — he also explained the concern we have for British passport holders in Israel,'' he said adding that Britain expected Israel to cooperate with its investigations.
On the face of it, the British government appears to have hit all the right buttons to express its outrage and, in fact, there is speculation that it might even scrap its intelligence-sharing arrangement with Mossad if it is found to have been involved in the Dubai affair.
So, what's going on? Is British anger just a lot of hot air as Israelis seem to suggest? Or, is the anger real?
The cynical answer is that, actually, we'll never know simply because we'll never know the truth about Mossad's involvement. For, notwithstanding the Dubai police claim that they're “99 per cent” sure it was a Mossad operation, Israel alone knows the truth and nobody seriously believes that it is going to accept responsibility.
“Policy of ambiguity”
Nor is the British investigation likely to go far without Israel's active and honest cooperation. But Israel has already made clear that it should not be expected to answer any questions saying that it has a “policy of ambiguity” on intelligence matters, and firmly rejecting any suggestion of Mossad's involvement.
“There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad, and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief,” Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.
This is not the first time that Mossad has been involved in a row over British passports. In the 1980s, its U.K. operations were shut down by the Margaret Thatcher government after its agents were caught with British passports. It then gave an undertaking of good behaviour in future, though as The Times recalled : “No one really believed that Mossad would honour its pledge.”
The Guardian pointed out that Mossad agents “routinely use…. forged western passports and when caught doing it Israel give assurances they will not do it again.”
“Evidently these diplomatic assurances are worthless,” it said branding the Dubai incident as a “breach of trust between two nations who are ostensibly allies.”
The government has been accused of acting in a “supine” manner in dealing with Israel. There have been allegations of a possible cover-up with media reports claiming that Britain had advance knowledge of a Mossad plot involving British passports. It has also been reported that Britain knew two weeks ago that British passports were used by the killers of Mr. Mabhouh but kept quiet.
Predictably, the Government has rejected such reports as “completely untrue” and “nonsense” but it is under growing pressure even from uber Israeli loyalists to take a tougher line. Talk to sceptics, though, and they are likely to tell you to go and brush up your history of British-Israeli relations before entertaining such thoughts.