What the Dubai assassination reveals

Robert Baer considers some of the wider implications of the assassination of the Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai in January:

If Mossad was indeed responsible, it means that blame for Mabhouh’s assassination can be put at the doorstep of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s Prime Minister has historically approved hits staged in countries with which Israel is not at war. Such details are unlikely to be made public any time soon, but it does make you wonder what the deliberations might have been leading up to Mabhouh’s assassination.

More than a few Middle East hands shrugged their shoulders at the question: Netanyahu wouldn’t have cared whether Israel was fingered for the assassination of Mabhouh or not. The whole point, they argue, was to send a reminder to Israel’s enemies that it will eliminate them anywhere it can find them. When Mossad went after the Palestinian Black September movement in retaliation for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, it didn’t give a damn about the diplomatic blowback. It was a case of an eye for an eye, and the belief that the best deterrence is to strike fear into your enemies.

But the evidence that the assassins tried to make it look as if Mabhouh died in his sleep belies the deterrence explanation. And it doesn’t answer the question why Mossad would risk exposing 26 operatives. A small intelligence service, Mossad cannot afford to take this many people out of circulation by having their pictures beamed around the world. It also doesn’t explain why the alleged assassins stole the identities of Israeli citizens. Israelis may be proud that their secret service can reach its enemies anywhere, but it serves no national or political interests to expose their own people to retribution.

If Netanyahu authorized the hit, though, the real question is whether he really considered the strategic implications. Look at the map. If Israel goes ahead and bombs Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will need over-flight clearances from the Gulf Arabs. Antagonizing the U.A.E. in this way, leaving almost no doubt Israel was behind Mabhouh’s assassination, does not seem the best way to facilitate such clearances.

Baer makes a good point. If everything had gone as planned not only would there have been no news about the killing, but Hamas’ leaders themselves would have had little reason to doubt that Mabhouh had died of natural causes.

As for Netanyahu’s strategic thinking, there are at least two ways of interpreting his action. Either it was purely opportunistic and a decision made without clearly thinking through the implications. Or, it can be taken as further evidence that despite the Israeli leader’s bellicose posture he does in fact have no intention of asking Arab states for over-flight clearances because — and this would be Israel’s most closely guarded secret — Netanyahu has in truth no intention of attacking Iran and that his thinly veiled threats are hollow.

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