NAZARETH // Israeli ministers were reported to have emerged from their weekly Cabinet meeting last month smugly satisfied at the news that the Hamas official Mahmoud al Mabhouh had been killed in a Dubai hotel room. Those smiles have turned sour during the past two days.
Yesterday, the finger of suspicion pointed with increasing confidence at Israel, as Dubai police said they were "99 per cent" certain that Israel's spy agency, Mossad, had been involved. That came as no surprise to most ordinary Israelis, said Uri Avnery, a veteran peace campaigner and for many years a member of the Israeli parliament. "Almost everyone in Israel understands that this was a Mossad operation," he said. "Not only that, they are taking great pride in it."
But if the Israeli public is revelling in the glory of a successful assassination by its fabled Mossad, the country's leaders may be less sanguine at a rapidly unfolding investigation that leads to their door. In the wake of revelations that the names of seven of the 11 known members of the death squad belonged to Israeli citizens, their identities apparently stolen, local analysts suggested that this operation was looking like a potential own-goal.
Several commentators have already called for Meir Dagan, Mossad's long-serving head, to resign. An unnamed "confidant" of Mr Dagan told the Reuters news agency yesterday that there was no question of his quitting, adding that to do so would be tantamount to admitting that Israel had carried out the Dubai hit. But the confidant conceded that the operation had provoked "anger" towards Israel in a significant number of friendly foreign capitals.
So far, Israel is heading into a diplomatic storm with at least four countries - Britain, Ireland, France and Germany - over the use of forged passports to get the hit squad into Dubai. Both Britain and Ireland called in their local Israeli ambassadors for "clarification" meetings yesterday. Reports suggested London might punish Israel by cutting off intelligence sharing, and that Ireland was hoping to set up a joint investigation with the other three countries affected.
More countries may also have grounds soon for expressing displeasure: additional members of the team are expected to be identified in the coming days, and the assassins, it seems, communicated among themselves via a control centre in Austria. The Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, currently the only potential partner to a deal with Israel, was looking increasingly exposed too.
Sources in the rival Hamas movement said two Palestinian suspects extradited from Jordan to Dubai were Fatah security officers who fled Gaza when Hamas took control in 2007. Fatah officials said the two men, named as Anwar Shheibar and Ahmad Hasnain, had subsequently defected to Hamas. In addition, Israel appears to have jeopardised through the assassination its recent attempts to forge better relations with a number of Arab states in the hope of building a stronger coalition against Iran.
Those fingering Mossad for the hit draw interesting parallels with the attempted assassination of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in 1997 in Jordan. The two Mossad agents who injected Mr Meshaal with poison were travelling on forged passports too, in this case Canadian. Their capture and unmasking led to a diplomatic crisis with Canada and damaged relations with Jordan, one of the few Arab states with which Israel was on reasonable terms.
Another parallel is that in both cases the prime minister was Benjamin Netanyahu. Critics have accused him of a history of acting recklessly. Yossi Sarid, who was on the parliamentary panel that investigated the Meshaal affair, observed yesterday that the inquiry had shown how "clumsy" Israeli decision-making was. Mr Netanyahu and Mossad officials, he said, had not asked basic questions, including whether it was wise to make the Meshaal hit in Jordan. He suggested similar errors had occurred this time.
An editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper, meanwhile, berated the Israeli government for a number of "negligent mishaps" in the Dubai hit, which it said had unnecessarily revealed the Mossad's modus operandi, angered foreign governments, and exposed Israeli nationals to future risk. "Should all Jews considering coming to live in Israel from the West be concerned that their names might be linked with espionage and terror incidents throughout the world?" Haaretz asked.
Certainly, the use of the identities of Israeli citizens, rather than foreign nationals, in the operation - making it traceable to Israel - suggests that Mossad may have been forced to make shortcuts. Ron Ben Yishai, the security analyst for Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, noted that whoever organised the assassination had gone to great lengths to try to minimise the danger to the Israelis involved by changing as many details, including document numbers and dates of birth, as they could.
In the past, Mossad has needed a regular supply of genuine foreign passports to carry out its "false-flag operations", but obtaining them has proved to be increasingly difficult. As recently as 2004, two agents were jailed in New Zealand after they were caught trying to acquire passports. An era of biometric data and more sophisticated border controls was making life more difficult for Mossad, said Yossi Melman, Haaretz's intelligence reporter.
Mr Avnery observed that, while Israelis were interested in examining the details of what might have gone wrong in Dubai, they considered the correctness of the policy itself as self-evident: "No one is asking whether we want to be a state in which assassination is a major pillar of policy. Do we want to be a gangster state?" firstname.lastname@example.org