Israeli military analyst Ronen Bergman had an interesting contribution in yesterday’s WSJ about the almost-certainly-Mossad killing of Hamas operative Muhammad al-Mabhuh in Dubai last month. (HT: Phil Weiss.)
It’s true, Bergman seemed clearly to be condoning the concept of Israeli hit squads roaming the earth, killing whomsoever they please in a completely lawless (= extra-judicial) way.
But he did also ask these questions:
- did Mabhouh constitute an immediate threat? Was eliminating him worth violating international law and risking the ire of so many states at a time when the international community seems to have finally gotten serious on Iran?
… [S]uch acts need to be extremely rare. In the case of Israel, such operations require the explicit approval of the prime minister, and they are authorized only after the political risks are carefully weighed. In the case of Dubai, it seems that this did not occur. Either the risks were not explained to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, or he made a serious miscalculation.
He also wrote this:
- the real, and so far unappreciated, achievement in this affair belongs to the Dubai police, who were able to integrate all the evidence at their disposal into one clear picture and do so with remarkable speed.
Whoever sent the hit squad to Dubai was not aware that the police and security services had such advanced capabilities at the ready. The investigators managed to put together still and video shots taken in seven different locations and place them on a single timeline together with the cellphone records of the individuals in the footage. Doing this requires sharp analysis and advanced computer skills, and computerized intelligence systems able to cross check information from various sources.
How did the Dubai police manage all this? Did they have help? For now, it remains a mystery. But in any case, misjudging the ability of the Dubai authorities so spectacularly is evidence of a serious intelligence failure on the part of the organization that sent out the squad.
Personally, I would say that putting together video and stills footage from surveillance cameras doesn’t seem like a terrifically tough job. I mean, they’re all time-coded anyway.
I think what the Mossad people misread was not the capability of the Dubai police but their intentions, namely, their willingness to investigate this crime quickly and with an apparently high degree of honesty and thoroughness.
I think the Israelis– from Netanyahu on down– most likely assumed that, regardless of what the capabilities of the Dubai police were, the Dubai authorities would be happy to bumble or cloud the investigation in an attempt to keep their undoubted continuing links with Israel untouched by the affair.
That was also the key mistake of arrogance that Netanyahu made when he authorized the Mossad’s 1997 assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal in Amman, remember. On both occasions, it seems to me, Netanyahu and his security advisers, committed not one but two serious mistakes of arrogance:
- 1. In both cases there was probably an assumption that Mossad ‘tradecraft’ was of a high enough caliber that these agents– who turned out to be Keystone Cops type assassins, in the event– could perform their task undetected.
2. In both cases, there was also an assumption that, even if evidence about these assassins’ doings and identities should emerge, the local government would be happy to sweep the whole affair under the rug in the interest of keeping its relations with Israel and its western backers in good order.
Of course, there is also an underlying arrogance in all such cases, too. Namely, that it’s quite okay to go round the world killing anyone you want just based on some suspicion of something.
But back to #2 above. In the case of Jordan 1997, Netanyahu and his advisers seriously under-estimated the willingness of King Hussein to kick up a huge fuss when the bumbling would-be killers’ antics came to light. Yes, Hussein doubtless valued the relationships he had with the Israeli government (and its US backers) at the time. But he was also subject to non-trivial internal pressures from Hamas– an organization with which, anyway, he had had a lengthy previous relationship.
Netanyahu seemed not to understand that, back in 1997. And he seemed not understand this time round that, for all the services that Dubai offers to the western governments and their armies of consumers– and doubtless also to Israel as well, in many respects– nevertheless its government also has a longstanding relationship with Iran as a key entrepot for that country’s traders, and government leaders also have a great degree of sympathy for Hamas.
Also, Dubai’s whole reputation as a ‘free-wheeling entrepot’ type of place, like Singapore or whatever, depends on its being able to safety and security to all kinds of visitors from other countries. Having the Israelis violate this norm is not something that any of the city-state’s managers would be happy about, at all.
Netanyahu and his people seem also to have mis-forecast the responses of two other actors in this drama: the western governments, especially the British government, and those Israeli citizens of European origin whose identities the Mossad blithely chose to steal/forge, and whose names are therefore now about to be posted on every Interpol warning around the world.
Previously, those Israeli citizens could have been expected to comply with a kind of nationalist vow of omerta about the fact of the identity theft. But now, it seems, no. Some of them have been outspoken in their criticism of the security agencies misuse of their identities. That’s new. And another significant aspect of this case.