One of Israel’s most potent weapons has been the mixture of awe and fear with which its spy services are held. Now that Mossad is suspected of killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, and using fraudulent British passports in the process, newspapers will dredge up stories about the Entebbe Raid, the killing of Black September by Mossad agents and other daring-do acts. The other reaction to the suspected assasination of the arm-smuggling Hamas official will be indignation about the extra-judicial nature of Israel’s action.
But these made-for-Hollywood stories and the West’s moral indignation mask some uncomfortable truths. That Mossad, its domestic equivalent Shin Bet and Israeli commandoes are bureaucratic organisations. Like all public bodies, sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Their staff work 9-17 and have as many bureaucratic problems as Hereford Council. Sometimes their tactical achievements undermine Israel’s strategy – and sometimes their work supports long-term aims. Sometimes, their work does nothing at all to help Israel.
General Meir Dagan has transformed Mossad from the tired 1990s outfit into a more imaginative, ruthless organisation, focused almost exclusively at targetting Iran and its connections with the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. He has scored many operational successes. Think of the 2007 Israeli attack against Syria’s North Korean-made nuclear reactor. Or the July 2006 destruction of Hezbollah’s cache of long-range weapons. Most famously, Mossad is suspected of killing Hamas chieftain Imad Mughniyah in 2008 in Damascus.
But did these events change the threat to Israel? Probably not. Iran continued its nuclear programme and boosted links to jihadist groups, which in turn grew stronger and more popular.
Dealing with this reality will require that Israel has strategic policy, active diplomacy and close links with key allies – something the current Israeli government seems to be missing. Relying on Mossad’s actions can at times be an important but insufficient part of achieving Israel’s aims. But it can also undermine Israel’s objectives, if it creates serious rifts with allies like Britain. Which category the suspected killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh falls into remains to be seen. But the two standard reactions – hero-worship or indignation – are insufficient.