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Israel Pushes Foreign Relations Limits

Publication Date: 
February 22, 2010
KCBS All News Radio 740 AM

Senior Lecturer Allen Weiner, an expert in international and national security, talks to KCBS Radio about the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh:

"Questions are increasing today surrounding the recent assassination of a leading Hamas operative in Dubai. Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh whose body was found in a luxury hotel there about a month ago. Ever since then suspicion has fallen on Israel's Mossad spy agency. Today Israel's foreign minister speaking European headquarters in Brussels sidestepped questions about his country's alleged role in this assassination. The issue has become front and center in the Middle East conflict and prompted reaction from several European leaders. For more we're joined on the KCBS news line by Allen Weiner. He is a senior lecturer in law and co-director of the Center on International Conflict and Resolution at Stanford Law School. Thank you so much for the time today. Talk a little bit about this man Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh. Who was he?"

" Well we know very little about him other than that he was one of the founders of the military wing of Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamist group that now controls the Gaza strip and is a rival to the more moderate Fatah faction in the Palestinian West Bank."

"His assassination is really cloak and dagger stuff -- it sounds like something out of a movie. Why don't you describe what it was that happened?"

"Well it's yeah of course we only we never really know what's going on. We're only acting upon reports, but it appears that the Israeli dispatched a team of their operatives using false European passports. The passports were based on the identities of Europeans who were residing in Israel and tracked this man down to his hotel room where they assassinated him."

"And why is this assassination getting so much attention?"

"Well I think there's three significant questions. Number one: is it legal to conduct this kind of assassination? I think it depends on whether we think Israel is in the state of war or armed conflict. If it is than Mabhouh would be a legitimate military target. Otherwise it's a plain extrajudicial killing. But there's a separate problem when this kind of activity is carried out in a third country and the question of whether it's legal to do it in Dubai is very problematic. You know conducting this kind of operation in a third country without its consent violates that state's sovereignty. And Dubai undoubtedly sees this act as a murder in violation of its law and will seek to prosecute the individuals who were involved. The third question is whether this was a good idea for Israel, quite apart from whether it was legal. I think the use of the European passports was a very risky step for the Israelis that may cost them both in foreign policy terms or more pointedly in terms of intelligence cooperation with European states. They've antagonized a relatively moderate Arab country and perhaps above all I think the Israelis have contributed to their sense that maybe they see themselves as being above the law and that may have some long term implications for their efforts in the Middle East."

"Is the Mossad spy agency like our CIA?"

"It is the equivalent, yes it is."

"And what does this say then about them and the way they're operating?"

"Well in fact the Mossad -- or the Israeli intelligence forces -- although we don't know for sure that the Israelis have done this it's consistent with their MO. There are other cases. In which Israelis have engaged in clandestine assassinations outside of Israel. They're famous --the film Munich tells the story about efforts to hunt down the Palestinian terrorists who were involved in the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. We also know that there was a botched attempt in Jordan a few years ago, in which the Mossad attempted to assassinate a Palestinian operating in Jordan. In the region I think this is seen as a black eye for the Mossad because so much has been been disclosed about the operation -- we know the passports that they used, they have been captured on hotel video cameras. On the other hand, I'm sure that there are many in Israel who say the bottom line for us is mission accomplished. We got the job done and none of our people were apprehended. And so I think there'll continue to be controversy within Israel about the spy craft aspect of this operation and whether it was well done apart from the questions I raised about legality and the broader foreign policy implications for Israel."

"Let's talk a little bit further about the broader foreign policy implication. You mentioned that Dubai as a country might consider this a murder and might want to prosecute those involved. Also the European Union has issued a statement on the use of false passports and saying it was profoundly disturbing. What more involvement, if any, if you can summarize in the last thirty seconds we have, might the European Union have in the situation and then how would that turn out for Israel?"

"Well I think the Europeans are unlikely to do very much affirmative beyond expressing their displeasure. I think the most significant question is whether some the countries in Europe that are most sympathetic to Israel might say: look if you're going to use our passport to conduct and undermine the confidence that the world has in our passport to conduct intelligence operations then we're going to start witholding intelligence information from you -- we're not going to share information that we might have about terrorist threats that you face. And so rather than seeing affirmative sticks it might be the withholding of carrots will be the principal response, I think, of the Europeans."