Notes From the Margins…

The Discreet Charm of the Mossad

  • January 12, 2012
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It isn’t difficult to imagine how Western governments would react if a foreign state assassinated its scientists, blew up its military facilities, or carried out bomb attacks on army officers, while heads of that state’s intelligence agency dropped hints that “There are more bullets in the magazine”.

Such actions would be universally condemned as terrorism.   The state responsible would be categorised as a ‘terrorist state’ or a ‘sponsor of terrorism’, whose behaviour violated international law and the codes of conduct that supposedly govern the ‘international community’.   Pariah status would follow.  Governments might withdraw their diplomats.    There would be condemnation in the UN Security Council, and calls for sanctions or even war.

But when that state is Israel the response is strangely muted, and more often than not non-existent.  Years ago,  Israel’s dovish Prime Minister Moshe Sharett condemned the kidnapping and murder of 5 Jordanian Bedouin by Israeli paratroopers in 1955 and speculated in his diary that such acts “must make the State appear in the eyes of the world as a savage state that does not recognize the principles of justice as they have been established and accepted by contemporary society.”

More than half a century later, Israel continues to operate on the principle that it can kill who it wants, when it wants and wherever it wants, secure in the knowledge that such actions will draw little or no condemnation amongst Western governments, which are in Israel’s eyes, the only governments that matter.

The covert war against Iran is almost certainly a continuation of this tradition,   even though it is shrouded as usual within Israel’s “policy of ambiguity” according to which Israeli politicians neither admit nor deny responsibility.  Sharett was wrong in his assumption that such behaviour would tarnish Israel’s image, however.

On the contrary Mossad is often treated with a level of tolerance and reverence that would be unimaginable with any other intelligence agency.  In January 2010 its  killing of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai drew condemnation from Britain and the EU, not because of the assassination itself but because its agents used forged European passports for their covers.

Foreign Minister David Miliband condemned Mossad’s “profound disregard” for the violation of Britain”s sovereignty – not Dubai’s.   Mossad’s London bureau chief was expelled, while the EU similarly found the killing “profoundly disturbing” – not because Mossad agents had electrocuted and suffocated al-Mahbouh, but because they had used European passports to do it.

Despite these occasional tiffs,  Mossad is widely admired by Western intelligence agencies for its ruthlessness, audacity and tenacity and its unproblematic willingness to act anywhere, without regard for  irrelevant trivia such as international law and diplomacy, human rights or due process, which democratic states are supposedly encumbered by.

Media coverage of its actions is often similarly reverential.  Last August a BBC radio documentary breathlessly described Mossad as “one of the most feared and fabled security services in the world”.In November last year Time magazine claimed that a series of bombings and explosions in Iran “burnishes the mystique of Mossad”.  Yesterday the Guardian referred to the “fabled Israeli intelligence service the Mossad” as a possible perpetrator of the attacks.

The Obama adminstration – which has clearly borrowed a great deal from the Mossad playbook in recent years –  denied responsibility for Tuesday’s assassination of the scientist Mostafa Ahmad Roshan in Tehran, and even condemned it without speculating on who might have been responsible.   But Hilary Clinton has called on Iran to “find a way to end its provocative behaviour” as if bombings and assassinations are not “provocative”.

This is not just a question of hypocrisy or double standards.  If Mossad is carrying out these killings and bombings, it’s almost certainly doing so in collusion with Western states, particularly the US and Britain or at least with their support.  For all the talk of Mossad’s “daring” and audacity, it behaves the way it does because it knows that it has effectively been granted impunity by the “international community” to do whatever it likes in Iran.

Mossad is also acting in accordance with a concept of statecraft that has long been practised by democratic states,  and which have become more openly recognized as a result of the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), in which killings and bombings that normally fall under the rubric of ‘terrorism’ are used to realise political objectives.   Thus the  New York Times quotes  Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who supports the covert war against Iran on the grounds that

“Sabotage and assassination is the way to go, if you can do it…It doesn”t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran, which could strengthen the regime. And it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.’

And today’s Guardian contains an article by Andrew Cummings, a former advisor to the UK cabinet”s national security staff, which  hailed Tuesday”s assassination of the Iranian physicist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan as an example of “ increasingly bold and creative attempts to disrupt and delay the Iranian nuclear programme.”

Cummings goes on to argue that

Covert action, increasingly robust sanctions, along with a credible threat of military action remain one half of the E3+3’s dual-track strategy of pressure and engagement that was recently restated  by the British foreign secretary. Covert action carries risks, but does not impact on the brave Iranian people that the Iranian authorities continually oppress.

Noble sentiments, and this admiration for “the brave Iranian people” is particularly touching.  But Cummings is essentially promoting  a form of political gangsterism that would be considered totally unacceptable if for example, an Arab state had carried out a similar campaign to prevent Israel from developing its nuclear programme in the 60s and 70s.

The result is that Mossad and its travelling companions will kill and kill again, and no one except Iran is likely to complain about it.   And if Iran is tempted to respond in kind,  it faces massive retaliation by a whole range of states that have been armed to the teeth for this  opportunity.

Whether Israel is trying to bring about this outcome on its own volition, or whether it is acting on behalf of other states, is difficult to tell. But anyone who believes that all this will result in a happy or peaceful ending is living in cloud cuckoo land.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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