NAZARETH, ISRAEL // Israel chose to "lie low" yesterday in response to Britain's decision to expel an Israeli diplomat over the use of forged passports in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, though senior officials were reported to be seething in private. According to the Israeli media, the foreign ministry was surprised by the British move against its embassy official, widely believed to be the London station chief for Israel's Mossad spy agency. Israeli officials noted the gravity of the decision: no Israeli diplomat has been expelled from a western country in more than two decades.
Israel was given prior warning and the diplomat flew out of London on Monday, 20 hours before David Miliband, the British foreign minister, announced the expulsion. Israeli officials were reported to regard the diplomatic rebuff as essentially a face-saving exercise by a British government concerned by political considerations as it faces an imminent general election. Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel's most popular daily, reported yesterday that Israel had agreed not to retaliate with an expulsion of its own and was expecting "soon" to send a replacement intelligence officer to London.
There were, however, concerns that Britain might limit its intelligence-sharing with Israel as a result of the incident. The Mossad is widely believed to have been behind the killing of Mahmoud al Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room in January after a large number of the identities used by the alleged 27 members of the hit squad were traced to Israeli dual nationals. Twelve British passports were used in the operation.
An investigation by Britain's Serious Organised Crime Agency established no direct links between the London Mossad chief and the cloning of the dozen UK passports allegedly used by the assassins. "All the cloning work seems to have been done in Israel as far as the UK passports were concerned," said a source in London yesterday. Testimonies from the British-Israeli nationals suggested that their passports were copied as they passed through customs at Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, or handed over their documents to airline officials.
Israel had in place arrangements to ensure the operation would not be jeopardised. Shortly beforehand, officials called the Israeli citizens whose identities were to be stolen purporting to be arranging appointments on immigration issues while in fact checking that they had no imminent travel plans. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, expressed "regret" at the British government's decision on Tuesday, but added that Britain had yet to provide "proof that Israel was involved in this affair".
In announcing the expulsion, Mr Miliband said there were "compelling reasons" to believe Israel was behind the cloned passports. That echoed the findings of Dubai Police, who said their investigations had left them "99 per cent certain" that the assassination was a Mossad operation. Investigations in the other countries whose passports were used in Dubai - Ireland, France, Germany and Australia - were continuing yesterday, though there was no sign of a rush to follow Britain's lead in expelling Israeli diplomats.
In the first official reaction in Dubai, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan, the police chief, said during a lecture at the Dubai Judicial Institute that the expulsion was an inevitable legal step "when a country finds that a diplomat has committed a crime". He did not say whether there had been co-operation between Dubai Police and British detectives regarding the expulsion or whether the two had shared other information.
The decision by the Israeli government not to vehemently protest Britain's decision appeared to partly reflect concerns about damage to future intelligence-sharing. Eli Carmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv, said: "The expulsion will certainly affect the intelligence dialogue between the two countries. If Israel learns of important information, it will be harder to share it now."
But the low-key approach taken by the government was not shared by some right-wing Israeli legislators. Arieh Eldad, of the National Union party, accused Britain of "behaving hypocritically" given its own involvement in the Middle East. He added: "I don't want to offend dogs on this issue, since some dogs are utterly loyal. Who are they to judge us on the war on terror?" Another, Michael Ben-Ari, called Britain "loyal to the anti-Semitic establishment".
Anger was vented too in private by senior officials, who told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that they were "stunned" and "humiliated" by the British response. "This is not the way for a real friend to act," one said, adding that the British intelligence services should "know how things work". But Amir Oren, a leading military affairs commentator for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, sounded a more critical note, castigating Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, for being "the one who did not check things fully, did not weigh the risks and rewards, and eroded Israel's diplomatic standing around the world".
He noted that Israel had broken a promise it made in 1986 not to misuse British passports after a Mossad agent left a batch of eight passports in a phone box in Germany. A year later Britain closed down Mossad's offices in London after a Palestinian double agent was discovered with an arms cache. Zvi Stauber, a former Israeli ambassador the Britain, said London had no interest in blowing up the affair but that "they had to do something".
David Sapsted reported from London and Awad Mustafa reported from Dubai. * The National