- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

The embarrassing trail left by a suspected Israeli hit team — a trail that began with doctored European passports, led to the assassination of a Palestinian terrorist in a Dubai hotel room, and ended on the front pages of world papers — has not worsened the country’s intelligence cooperation with Western countries, a senior Israeli official insists.

“There is a lot of hyperventilating about this in the public arena,” said the senior official, who asked not to be named because he was speaking about sensitive intelligence matters. The official said he was speaking only about the effects on intelligence links and was not confirming Israel’s involvement in the hit.

“The countries that coordinate the war on terror with allies like Israel and the United States and Europe are not as exercised about this as some of the public statements,” the official said. “There has been no effect on the operational side.”

But this assessment stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric emanating from Dubai and Brussels.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, one of the founders of the military wing of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, was killed in a luxury hotel in Dubai on Jan. 19.

Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, said Monday that she was worried that the perpetrators of Mr. al-Mabhouh’s killing had acquired the false passports through the “theft of EU citizens’ identities.”

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Britain was called in for an official reprimand by the Foreign Office. In Dubai, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of police for the emirate, has said he is “99 percent” sure that operatives of the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, killed Mr. al-Mabhouh.

Nonetheless, some details have emerged that do not track with traditional Israeli intelligence tradecraft. The Dubai authorities this week said two of the operatives fled to Iran.

Michael Ross, a retired officer for the Mossad’s covert-operations division, said it would be a breach of Israeli protocol for an operative to flee to another target country like that after an operation.

He also said that it was unlikely that Israel would use 26 people for a job that would require far fewer people. “The Mossad believes if two people can do something instead of three people, then send two.”

Duane Clarridge, a retired clandestine service officer and founder of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, said all signs suggested that Israel was behind the killing of the Hamas operative, but that is unlikely to affect allies’ intelligence cooperation with Israel.

“I don’t think anyone is going to come out and say, ‘That was wonderful,’” Mr. Clarridge said. “But on the other hand, this will not have an effect on Mossad’s relationship with other intelligence services over the long run. That is why intelligence-to-intelligence relationships exist, so they can carry on in moments like this.”

Frances Townsend, a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said the Obama administration should work discreetly to resolve the issue with the United Arab Emirates.

“I think it’s important to the extent that Mossad is believed to be behind the Mabhouh assassination, it is important for the United States to lead the international community to a quiet resolution of this issue,” she said.

“The United States can go to the [emirates] and the British behind the scenes and exert their power and influence. That is what they ought to do.”

Mr. Ross, who is also the author of “The Volunteer,” a memoir of his time in the Mossad, said, “The liaison and special political operations division of Mossad has a relationship with senior figures in the emirates’ government,” and the secret relationship was likely strained by the assassination.

“Dubai authorities for some reason have a bee in their bonnet, and this tension will not go away. This was the underestimation of the Mossad.”

Dubai, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, allows Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps, as well as European and Saudi interests, to bank there. It is also one of the top targets for intelligence services throughout the world.

Mr. Ross said that, in the end, he did not expect much blowback for Israel’s counterterrorism relationships from the al-Mabhouh killing.

Even when there was pressure from political leaders to downgrade the intelligence relationship with Mossad, it was temporary and largely symbolic, he said.

“For example,” Mr. Ross said, “when Mossad nearly killed [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997, Canada downgraded its relationship with Mossad for a very brief period. And in this period, we were still meeting, but we did not initiate new joint projects.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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