At first glance, the recent assassination of a mid-level Hamas operative in Dubai by the Israeli intelligence organization, Mossad, was a comedy of errors, as if the Three Stooges has suddenly been put in charge of one of the fabled agency’s hit squads: Easily traced passports and credit cards were used; team members put on fake mustaches and beards, sometimes so clumsily they could clearly be identified; and a female agent slipped on a disguising wig, only to walk back and forth in front of a surveillance camera for half an hour.
But was it really just a case of ineptitude and arrogance run wild or, as the Financial Times—not a publication given to wild-eyed conspiracy theories—editorialized, “part of a much bigger operation, or quite likely…about Dubai itself, and about Iran, which Israel sees as its greatest threat?”
There are certainly grounds for the Three Stooges theory. While Mossad has a reputation for lethal efficiency, in fact, its track record is extremely spotted. It has carried out a series of successful assassinations, including Imad Mughniyeh, a founder of Hamas, Syrian General Mohammad Suleiman, and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) members following the 1972 killing of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich.
But most of the PLO members it offed in the aftermath of Munich were diplomats working openly in Europe. Knocking them off, as Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery points out, was like shooting “ducks in a gallery.” The same Mossad assassins also killed the wrong man in Norway. And the agency famously botched the assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, permanently damaging its relationship with its closest friend in the Arab world.
Like the CIA, Mossad has also shown a streak of cluelessness. It was completely surprised by the 1973 Yom Kipper war, the first and second intifadas, the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the Hamas electoral victory in the Gaza Strip. In short, like most intelligence organizations, its reputation rests largely on the myths the agency spins in its press releases.
There was certainly a hefty quantity of arrogance about the whole Dubai operation. For instance, the Israelis must have been aware that Dubai has lots of surveillance cameras. It was just such cameras that nailed the murderer of Lebanese movie star, Suzanne Tamim in 2008.
And yet Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman told Der Spiegel, “The big surprise lies in the ability of the Dubai police to have put together all of this material to assemble a single picture. That’s an extremely complicated undertaking.”
Another Israeli intelligence source told the New York Times, “The operative teams were very much aware of the CCTV in Dubai, but they have been astonished at the ability of the Dubai police to reconstruct and assemble all the images into one account.”
Even the hit itself was sloppy. The assassins apparently shocked the victim, injected him with a muscle relaxant, and suffocated him. They left behind high blood pressure pills to make it look like a heart attack, and then carefully slipped out, putting the chain back on the door. But the coroner spotted the injection mark and the whole scheme unraveled.
So was it just Mossad thinking that the Arabs were just too dumb to figure this all out, or were the Israelis indeed trying to send a message?
There are some arguments that support the latter theory.
First, the size of the team. As the Financial Times put it, “not so much a hit squad as a swarm.” It is hard to hide 27 people, nor is it easy to understand why the Israelis needed a hit team that big to knock off a single person who didn’t even rate a bodyguard.
Second, the passports were easily traceable to the individuals whose identities Mossad had hijacked.
Dubai is one of the countries in the Middle East that is friendly with Israel, but it is also an important outlet for Iran. Iranians funnel money and goods into and out of the country, and large numbers of Iranians live in Dubai. The Financial Times calls Dubai “an extra lung for a regime already withering under sanctions, with more to come.”
Well, maybe more sanctions to come, maybe not. And that may be part of the story.
Washington’s drive to impose further sanctions on Iran is not going well. Brazil, currently a UN Security Council member, just told the U.S. to take a hike on Iran sanctions, and it is very unlikely that China will agree to major sanctions as well. Even Russia, which has supported some sanctions, has made it clear that Moscow would not go along with the “crippling” variety.
And while it has received very little coverage in the U.S. media, Iranian human rights organizations and trade unions are deeply opposed to sanctions because they fear they will provide an excuse for the Ahmadinejad regime to crack down on the opposition under the guise of national unity. Unionists are particularly worried that the Teheran government will use sanctions as a screen behind which it can accelerate dismantling food and energy subsidies, and as a cover for its program to turn much of the economy over to the Revolutionary Guard.
Screens and covers are not. However, the monopoly of the Ahmadinejad regime.
Behind the smoke pumped out of Tel Aviv about how Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel, the Netanyahu government has accelerated its colonization of the West Bank. According to the Israeli Defense Ministry, 29 settlements on the West Bank are building more houses, in spite of the so-called “temporary freeze” on such building. Peace Now says the figure is 34 settlements. On the day that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden touched down in Israel, the Netanyahu government announced it was constructing 1600 more homes in disputed East Jerusalem.
Besides the building blitz, the Tel Aviv government also announced that two key places on the West Bank—the cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb/Ibrahimi Mosque—were “heritage sites” and they, along with the entire Jordan Valley, would remain part of Israel. The moves, say U.S./Middle East Project President Henry Siegman, have “left the prospects for a two-state solution dead in the water.”
So what was the message of Dubai?
Maybe nothing more than simple incompetence and arrogance. But maybe the Israelis want Iran and the U.S. to think Tel Aviv is a little out of control and quite capable of doing something really bonkers, like whacking Iranian nuclear power plants.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bombast about Iran aside, the Obama Administration doesn’t want to add yet another war to its portfolio, but any Israeli assault on Iran will put the U.S. on the spot.
The attack would have to cross U.S. controlled air space, and of course it would be carried out by U.S.-made fighter-bombers and U.S. bunker buster bombs. Since it would be without UN sanction—and thus a violation of international law—the U.S. would have to use its veto power in the Security Council to keep Israel from being branded an international outlaw. The U.S has exercised that veto on behalf of Israel 40 times in the past, but defending Israel in this case would take a major act of contortion on Washington’s part.
The fear of an Israeli attack was behind the recent visits to Israel by Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice-President Biden. On arriving in Jerusalem, Mullen told his hosts that an “attack on Iran would be a big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the untended consequences.”
Maybe Tel Aviv’s saber rattling is smoke and mirrors. Even the Israeli armed forces think an attack would not stop Iran if it were determined to construct a nuclear weapon. As retired Maj. Gen. Issac Ben-Israel, one of the planners of the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, told UPI, if an attack does take place, “Israel will be denounced as a militant and aggressive state, the price of oil will soar, American and its allies in the Gulf are liable to be adversely affected---and worst of all, Iran will be perceived as the victim of Israeli aggression and will obtain international legitimization to renew the devastated nuclear project.”
Maybe the Israelis are looking for a quid pro quo: “We don’t attack Iran and make your life difficult. In turn, you keep your mouth shut about what we are doing on the West Bank, and maybe send us some new military toys.”
It is hard to sort out exactly what members of the Netanyahu government are thinking. The Prime Minister has thumbed his nose at the Obama Administration on the settlements, and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman has managed to threaten Syria, insult Turkey and snub a delegation of U.S. Congress members all within the last month. Israeli has never been as isolated internationally as it is today.
One is tempted to think that maybe the Three Stooges are in charge of the whole shebang, except that the outcome is unlikely to be comedic. A war in the Middle East is a real possibility, either with Iran or a rematch between Hezbollah and Israel. The consequences will be tragedy.