In early January two black Audi A6 limousines drove up to the main gate of a building on a small hill in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv: the headquarters of Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence agency, known as the “midrasha”.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, stepped out of his car and was greeted by Meir Dagan, the 64-year-old head of the agency. Dagan, who has walked with a stick since he was injured in action as a young man, led Netanyahu and a general to a briefing room.
According to sources with knowledge of Mossad, inside the briefing room were some members of a hit squad. As the man who gives final authorisation for such operations, Netanyahu was briefed on plans to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a member of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza.
Mossad had received intelligence that Mabhouh was planning a trip to Dubai and they were preparing an operation to assassinate him there, off-guard in a luxury hotel. The team had already rehearsed, using a hotel in Tel Aviv as a training ground without alerting its owners.
The mission was not regarded as unduly complicated or risky, and Netanyahu gave his authorisation, in effect signing Mabhouh’s death warrant.
Typically on such occasions, the prime minister intones: “The people of Israel trust you. Good luck.”
Mossad is now deeply embarrassed. Its use of the identities of British, French, German and Irish nationals as cover for agents to carry out the hit has angered western governments. In the ensuing diplomatic fall-out, sources close to Mossad said yesterday that it had suspended similar operations in the Middle East, mainly because of fear that heightened security would put its agents at greater risk. Dagan’s job is also on the line.
Howver. few believe that Mossad will give up the secret war it has long waged against Israel’s enemies.