By David Gardner

Published: February 25 2010 22:40 | Last updated: February 25 2010 22:40

There was a shocking murder, in 2008, of the Lebanese starlet, Suzanne Tamim. It was quickly solved. The culprit was caught on security camera. In Beirut or Cairo he would probably have got away with it. Dubai is an open city, but it has its eyes open too.

Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, would certainly have known that before it sent (as it almost certainly did) a 26-strong hit squad to Dubai to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, an arms smuggler for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, on January 19.

The agency’s team, using purloined identities and passports from allies including Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, got away but was captured on closed circuit television, as it surely knew it would be. While Israel almost never confirms such covert operations, it was almost as though it wanted the world to know.

On the day the Israeli ambassador in London was called in by the Foreign Office to explain his country’s conduct, his embassy was wittily tweeting about an Israeli tennis player carrying out “a hit in Dubai” (a reference to Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe’er’s reaching the semi-finals in the Dubai championship, as well as a sly reminder that some of the assassins were disguised as tennis players).

Yet, if Israeli officials can restrain their smirks for a moment, they might consider how much their militarist extroversion has really contributed to the security of the country. First of all, despite its reputation for daring, flamboyance and cold-blooded efficiency, Mossad’s record is mixed, to say the least. More importantly, even Israel’s operational successes increasingly backfire, politically and sometimes strategically – and now at a time when the country’s reputation is under the international microscope.

Israel has had its fair share of botched operations, going all the way back to the Lavon Affair of 1954, when an Israeli spy-ring was caught bombing Egyptian libraries and cinemas.

Mossad was lionised for hunting down the Black September terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But that too ended in fiasco when the hit squad killed a Moroccan waiter it mistook for Ali Hassan Salameh, a top aide to Yassir Arafat, in Lillehammer in July 1973; several of its members were jailed by Norway, causing huge damage to the agency’s networks across Europe. While all this was going on, Mossad signally failed to detect any sign of the looming Yom Kippur war.

Mossad did eventually get Salameh, with a car-bomb in Beirut in 1979, but by then he had become US and British intelligence’s main conduit into the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Most famously, Mossad agents (using Canadian passports) got captured in Amman in September 1997 after failing to kill Khaled Meshal of Hamas. The bungler in that case was Benjamin Netanyahu, then, as now, Israel’s prime minister, to whom the late King Hussein – Israel’s one friend in the Arab world – had just passed a Hamas offer of a 30-year truce. The king, his biographer, Avi Shlaim records, felt as though someone “had spat in his face”. The relationship never quite recovered. Not only that, but Israel had to release Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas.

Israel would later assassinate Sheikh Yassin (and 21 other Palestinian leaders in the three years from June 2001). Clearly, this Israeli preference for instantly satisfying, executive solutions to complex political and geopolitical problems continues apace. But does the balance sheet from this sort of activity redound to Israel’s credit or rebound against it?

Well, Mr Meshal survived to become the most powerful man in Hamas, and more radical than most of his slain peers. Arguably, Israel achieved a similar result by assassinating PLO leader Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis in 1988, removing a weighty restraint on Yassir Arafat. A lot less arguably, Israel scored an own-goal by killing Hizbollah chief Abbas Mussawi in 1992; his successor, the wily and charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, has become Israel’s deadliest enemy. Israel even managed to network its enemies shortly afterwards, summarily expelling 400 Hamas and intifada activists and depositing them on the Lebanese border. As an aide to the late Yitzhak Rabin would ruefully observe, “we might as well have sent them to Hizbollah’s university”.

Lebanon figures prominently in Israel’s balance sheet in other ways. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon is acknowledged even inside Israel as the country’s first war of choice. True, Ariel Sharon drove Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon, albeit at permanent cost to Israel’s reputation after a siege of west Beirut that killed nearly twice as many people as the siege of Sarajevo in one-twentieth of the time.

But that invasion created Hizbollah. “When we entered Lebanon,” said former prime minister and current defence minister Ehud Barak, “there was no Hizbollah.” Rabin, the slain former soldier-premier, lamented how the invasion “let the genie out of the bottle”. Israeli officials now portray Hamas and Hizbollah as creatures in an Iranian grand design. But if Iran did not exist these two Islamist groups would exist – and Israel knows why. And, as backfires go, they do not come much bigger than Hizbollah.

The Shia Islamist group not only bombed the US out of Beirut in 1983 but also fought the Israeli army back to its border, forcing it out altogether by 2000, reliant, paradoxically, on superior intelligence. In their last test of arms, the 34-day summer war of 2006, Hizbollah stood its ground and mercilessly exposed the limits of Israel’s military power. Israel’s damning report from the Winograd Commission confirmed this – as did the pinnacle to which Hizbollah and its leader were raised across the Arab world.

Israel hit back. Almost certainly, and with inside help, it was behind the murder two years ago in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbollah’s deadliest operative. But that will, as in the past, widen the international battle-space for tit-for-tat attacks.

Yet, beyond this or that particular incident, it does Israel’s cause no good to encourage the perception that it is a rogue state – especially after it stands accused of war crimes in Gaza by the Goldstone report commissioned by the United Nations. Even though Israel came into existence as a result of the international system built around the UN, its leaders have tended to take the view that international law does not really exist or, if it does, it simply does not apply to them. They have got away with it because they have been able to rely on the US veto in the Security Council, exercised 29 times to shield Israel’s behaviour in the occupied Palestinian territories and 11 times to protect its actions in Lebanon.

Levi Eshkol, prime minister when Israel won a crushing victory in the 1967 six day war, got it right. If Israel wanted to insist simultaneously on its unparalleled strength and unique vulnerability, it would have to give up the David versus Goliath script and portray itself as “poor little Samson”. That role no longer convinces.

david.gardner@ft.com

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