UK expels Israeli diplomat, Australia to follow suit?
Fore more information on the assassination of Mahmoud al Mabhouh which has sparked this debacle click here.
There are reports that Australia will possibly expel an Israeli diplomat, following the announcement of a similar expulsion in the UK.
“We take this matter very seriously. But we will take it in a sensible, methodical approach,” Stephen Smith, the Australian Foreign Minister, said. “Obviously we’ll take into account what other countries have done, and the United Kingdom is not the only country caught up in this. Regrettably, there’s also France, Ireland and Germany.”
He said that David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary who ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the cloning of British passports used in the hit, had offered him the report by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. The Australian police are still investigating the forgery of the four Australian passports used in the killing. Mr Smith did not say when the inquiry would end or what measures his Government might take. [Times Online]
The UK expulsion appears to be a symbolic/rhetorical action aimed more at gaining positive media attention before the upcoming election than at any serious breach of ties. According to Haaretz:
It could have been much worse,” the official told the British newspaper. “I wouldn’t call it a slap on the wrist, but it was more a symbolic reprimand than anything else.”
Israel has also received assurances that the diplomat asked to leave could be replaced within six weeks, once the general election was over, the report added.
The Guardian, in a strongly-worded editorial, disagrees, noting that this is the first expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from the UK since 1988 and pointing to an “unprecedented statement” from David Miliband which “all but accused the Israeli government of participation in a criminal, terrorist conspiracy.”
He said that given that high-quality forgeries were made of British passports, it was “highly likely” the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service and that, taken with other inquiries from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), there were compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of British passports. The inference was clear. If Israel as a government was responsible for the forgery of passports, it was responsible too for the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the founder of Hamas’s military wing, in Dubai.
Former British diplomat Oliver Miles characterises this expulsion as a show of recognition that words must be backed by action when dealing with Israel, he also urges European action, or at least consideration, on Israel and questions the Israeli Government’s commitment to “the peace process.”
The Times Online reports that Israel has not taken any retaliatory measures against Britain’s diplomats and is hoping this crisis will blow over, it also has some statements from various people indicating that the Israelis may be taking this seriously:
There is further concern that the severe step taken by the British Government could negatively impact its security ties with Israel and the particularly close co-operation between the two intelligence organisations, the Mossad and Britain’s MI6,” said Ben Caspit, a commentator for Maariv newspaper.
This could cause heavy intelligence and operational damage to Israel and the Mossad, and leave the Israeli intelligence organisation exposed on many fronts — both in terms of its operational options and in terms of its methods of operation and the extent of the intelligence that was shared with foreign organisations,” he said.
However on the other hand, Times also spoke to Moshe Maor, an expert on British-Israeli ties who said:
Moshe Maor, an expert of British-Israeli ties at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that the British actions had more to do with the upcoming elections than intelligence work.
“In an electoral situation in which the two main parties are running very nearly even, the importance of every vote carries great importance. There is a desire to satisfy those who have previously abandoned Labour, such as the far Left. In actuality, what we have here is an attempt to score points in the media and not a case of concrete damage to bilateral relations,” he said.
While I can see The Guardian’s and Ben Caspit’s points on this, I still don’t think this is really an event of any significance, and while I disagree with Mr. Maor that this is about winning votes back from the far left, I do think that this is a political move aimed at domestic audiences in the UK.
As Miles pointed out in his piece, expulsion of diplomats on the grounds of suspected espionage is nothing new and certainly no declaration of war. This may not have happened since 1988 but then British passports haven’t been forged since 1981 either. In an election year, the British government was never going to sit idly by or issue impotent condemnations, action needed to be taken and this is the simplest action that could have been taken. David Miliband’s comments notwithstanding, not a great deal has changed since then between Israel and the UK. Milliband himself was describing Israel as “a strategic partner” as recently as December last and, as Miles points out, this is a meaningless bit of circle jerk which shows a commitment to a vague “friendship” rather than anything real.
Stronger words by Milliband now may simply reflect the greater permissibility of criticising Israel in stronger terms, the reality of Israel’s relationship with Western nations may not have changed but the language has shifted a great deal since increased visibility of protest movements and, among other things, the Gaza offensive and the subsequent Goldstone Report. Stronger rhetoric can now be applied but I maintain that, behind the words, lies the same steely realpolitik facade of not wanting to rock that boat. It will be interesting to see what Australia’s Federal Commission into the stolen passports will show up and whether it will matter even a little.