JERUSALEM, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The quiet assassination of a
Hamas commander gets unexpectedly messy. Exposed and forced to
atone before furious allies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu orders the spymaster responsible to fall on his sword.
That was in 1997, when the Mossad director resigned after
his men botched the poisoning of Khaled Meshaal in Jordan. Now
premier a second time, Netanyahu faces a similar crisis over the
the death of another Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai.
Israel's official silence on the Jan. 20 killing has been
outpaced, in the popular imagination, by UAE police footage of
the suspected assassins and revelations some of them had copied
the European passports of actual immigrants to the Jewish state.
The idea that the Mossad, having long cultivated a
reputation for lethally outwitting Israel's foes abroad, this
time tripped up by underestimating Arab counter-espionage
capabilities prompted commentators to demand a public reckoning.
Special scrutiny was devoted to Mossad director Meir Dagan,
an ex-general now in his eighth year of service and praised by
Israeli leaders for spearheading a shadow war against Hamas,
Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, and Iran's nuclear programme.
Amir Oren of the liberal Haaretz daily went as far as to
call for Dagan to be fired, describing him as belligerent,
heavy-handed and predicting a flap with Britain, Ireland,
France and Germany -- the countries whose passports were forged.
Even if whoever carried out the assassination does reach
some kind of arrangement with the infuriated Western nations, it
still has an obligation to its own citizens, Oren wrote.
Several of the foreign-born Israelis who said their
identities had been stolen for the Mabhouh assassination voiced
fear they could now by vulnerable to prosecution for murder.
However, one Israeli intelligence source told Reuters that
Dagan was in a stronger position than his ill-fated predecessor
13 years ago.
His record against Iran has won him great credit and, in the
absence of the smoking gun that the captive Israeli agents in
Jordan were, to act against the Mossad chief would look like an
Israeli admission, the source said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did not deny
Mossad involvement in Mabhouh's death but tried to deflect
attention, implying in a radio interview that some other
intelligence service or another country may have had a role.
Israel's allies recognize that our security activity is
conducted according to very clear, cautious and responsible
rules of the game, Lieberman asserted.
Other pundits disagreed about the diplomatic price that
could be exacted from Israel, which is already fending off
foreign criticism of the hundreds of Palestinian civilian deaths
during its offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip last year.
But there was little arguing the fact that Hamas had turned
the tables on Mabhouh's assassins by insisting UAE police launch
a murder investigation after they initially ruled that his
death, in a Dubai hotel room, had been of natural causes.
What began as a heart attack turned out to be an
assassination, which led to a probe, which turned into the
current passport affair, wrote Yoav Limor in Israel Hayom, a
It is doubtful whether this is the end of the affair.
Israelis generally rally around Mossad's two-fisted image --
honed back in the 1970s, when the agency hunted down and killed
Palestinians blamed for a deadly raid on Israel's Olympic
delegation at the Munich Games.
But the Mabhouh hit underscored the difficulties spies must
contend with in the digital era, with ubiquitous high-resolution
CCTV coverage and easily accessed passport databases.
What happens in the modern world, the cameras everywhere --
it changes things not just for those whose trade is terror but
also those trying to fight terror, former Mossad officer Ram
Igra told Israel's Army Radio.
Mabhouh had masterminded the abduction and killing of two
Israeli troops in 1989 and, more recently, the smuggling of
Iranian-funded arms to Gaza. The attempted discretion of his
killing indicated his assassins were not on a vendetta but,
rather, aimed to quietly eliminate what they saw as a threat.
Yet the possibility that Mossad had so quickly come undone
led Yossi Melman, author of two books on the intelligence
agency, to suggest such assassinations would not be repeated.
Melman said a wider question would be also raised: Does
Israel's assassinations policy pay off?
The 1997 attempted assassination in Amman, by two Mossad
officers posing as Canadian tourists, unwittingly boosted
Meshaal's status in Hamas. Netanyahu was also forced to free the
Islamist faction's jailed spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)