Secrets and lies between friends over Mossad murder

My following article is published today on ABC Unleashed/The Drum:

Israel is a protected species in the international arena. Many Western states, including Australia, have long tolerated behaviour by the Jewish state that is condemned if committed by any other democracy.

This reality makes the current scandal over the alleged Mossad hit last month in Dubai of a senior Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, all the more fascinating. The Palestinian militant may be dead but Israel’s reputation and credibility have taken a severe beating. The Israeli press are reporting that up to a third of a key Mossad hit squad may have been compromised.

Australia has a long history of bi-partisan support for the Jewish state but I can’t recall another time when the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have expressed such public outrage over Israel’s apparent use of Australian passports to cover their tracks in the Dubai murder. This is despite a Jerusalem Post columnist insisting that, “it behoves Western democracies not to lose sight of the fact there are instances in which ends do justify means”.

In this case, Australia apparently does not agree. Smith said he told Israel’s Australian ambassador, Yuval Rotem, that, “if the abuse of Australian passports was in any way sponsored or condoned by Israeli officials, then Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend.” Rudd was equally indignant though refused to specify what action might be taken if Israel did not co-operate. Senior ministers in both the ALP and Liberal party were equally vague on ABC’s Lateline on Friday.

Perhaps an early indication of Canberra’s anger was seen in a vote in the UN last week that saw Australia abstain from backing Israel against the serious allegations contained in the Goldstone Report related to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. This is a change from months of unqualified backing for Israel’s onslaught against Gaza in late 2008/early 2009.

The headline of an article by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher summed up the mood: “Betrayed PM should not be taken for granted by Israel”. The Age‘s Diplomatic Editor Daniel Flitton argued that, “a long friendship is on the line”.

Not so fast. Canberra is apparently upset that Israel has abused its deep friendship. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government probably presumed that a strong ally such as Australia would be unfazed by the abuse of its passport system or more likely hoped it would never become public. An Israeli official, anonymously of course, told the conservative Washington Times that the revelation of Mossad’s behaviour in Dubai would not affect intelligence sharing between Israel and the West.

But a former Australian Middle East ambassador, Ross Burns, is pleasantly surprised by the Rudd government’s strong line. It is time, he writes, that Australia matures and gets past its “smitten” love affair with the Jewish state.

It is possible that Australia will briefly downgrade its relationship with Mossad, as Canada did after the botched assassination attempt in 1997 of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal using fake Canadian passports, but backing Israel for Australia is too central to its complicity with the US alliance to seriously question or radically change.

A better example may be New Zealand in 2004, when then Prime Minister Helen Clark discovered Israeli agents trying to steal the country’s passports and suspended diplomatic relations until an apology was forthcoming.

Countless reports have emerged over the years of Israeli allegedly using Australian passports as cover for covert activities but successive Australian governments have never fully pursued the leads. The public should ask why.

The Australia/Israel relationship is not based on shared values, as constantly stated by the elites in both countries. Instead, Canberra’s usual blind backing of Israeli actions is directly related to the relationship with Washington. If US President Barack Obama suddenly cut all aid to the Jewish state due to its intransigence, rest assured Australia would follow. Our foreign policy in the Middle East is not independent.

But there is no doubt that Kevin Rudd, like most Prime Ministers before him, view Israel as a unique state deserving special privileges. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said on the weekend that Rudd must take a much harder line on Netanyahu.

The Holocaust could no longer be used to justify acts of terrorism in the name of supposed security, he argued: “That happened 65-66 years ago and it cannot be used any longer to prevent proper discussion of Israel’s policies when those policies are counter-productive to world peace. To suggest that those who are critical are anti-Semitic – I reject that utterly.”

Others, such as The Australian‘s Greg Sheridan, applauded the murder of the Hamas leader but asked Israel to be more careful next time. In other words, don’t get caught with blood on your hands.

Outright condemnation of Israeli actions has risen in the mainstream press. Amin Saikal in the Sydney Morning Herald accused Israel of committing state terrorism and The Age claimed Israel had “lost friends” over the scandal.

Extra-judicial killings are a central feature of the “war on terror” and Israel is only one of its supporters. The Bush administration (along with the Obama White House) strongly backed the concept of assassinating individuals deemed to be “terrorists” in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald articulates the largely hidden program:

“Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose ‘a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.’ They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations.”

A robust democracy would not allow the executive to engage in wanton killing in the name of eliminating “terrorists” but little has been discussed in Australia that acknowledges the fundamental problems with this post 9/11 reality (despite the occasional exception).

Israel’s actions over the Hamas murder are deplorable and must be fully investigated (and Washington pressured to join the hunt for clues). The image of Israel in the wider Australian society has inevitably taken a welcome hit but it remains highly unlikely that the political and media elites will implement the obvious implications of the latest affair; Israeli behaviour in the Middle East and the occupied territories are not the sign of a responsible or democratic nation.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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