|Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was one of the founders of the armed wing of Hamas [EPA]|
In the various commentaries we have seen concerning the alleged Israeli assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Israel’s Mossad is coming in for a great deal of criticism.
How, it is asked, could the vaunted Israeli spy service have left behind so much evidence?
Isn’t the point of such operations to “eliminate” an enemy without being detected?
And when, according to this analysis, one factors in the ensuing political and diplomatic “firestorm” which is still gaining momentum, this Israeli operation – for such it certainly was – begins to look like a colossal blunder.
I would suggest, however, that those making these criticisms are missing the point.
Among other things, they are working from an old paradigm which simply is no longer relevant.
Missing the point
|Surveillance cameras make remaining undetectable increasingly impossible [Reuters]|
The point is that in this day and time, with ubiquitous surveillance cameras, the ability to comprehensively analyse patterns of cell phone and credit card use, computerised records of travel documents which can be shared in the blink of an eye, the growing use of biometrics and machine-readable passports, and the ability of governments to share vast amounts of travel and security-related information almost instantaneously, it is virtually impossible for clandestine operatives not to leave behind a vast electronic trail which, if and when there is reason to examine it in detail, will amount to a huge body of evidence.
Their challenge is no longer to remain permanently undetectable; that is simply unrealistic.
Rather, they have twin challenges: First, to move quickly enough that the evidence of their actions can only be gathered after the fact, as part of a forensic investigation; and second, to ensure that the inevitable trove of ex-post-facto evidence, however compelling it may seem in identifying the culprit, remains strictly circumstantial.
In the wake of this supposed blunder, does anyone know the true identity of any of the Israeli operatives? In fact there is nothing to prevent Israeli officials from doing precisely what they are doing – to refuse either to confirm or deny involvement in this operation, and to challenge their accusers to produce the incontrovertible proof.
As for the political, diplomatic and public relations costs to the state of Israel, those are certainly considerable, but that is altogether another question, isn’t it?
Since those costs were eminently predictable, the decision to launch this operation would have come down to a political/policy judgment on the part of Israeli officials as to whether the benefits of this operation justified its costs.
And before we jump to any conclusions on that account, let’s take a more dispassionate look at those costs: Yes, there are a number of Western countries currently annoyed with the Israelis over the misuse of their passports and the theft of their citizens’ identities. But realistically, what are they going to do? Permanently break relations? I don’t think so.
Yes, the Goldstone report and the threat of indictments against Israeli officials for crimes against humanity may qualitatively affect the environment in which this latest scandal is judged, but when it comes down to it, the Israelis do not expect to be liked, and frankly do not care – certainly not when they believe their security to be at stake.
So long as their relations with the Americans are unaffected, they can afford to be fundamentally indifferent.
The simple, cruel truth is that in the end, no one – and here I would include all the governments concerned, including the concerned Arab states – is really going to care all that much, or for all that long, about the fate of one Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
Yes, there will be a bit of unpleasantness for a while, but before long, life will go back to normal.
Whether or not that is the way it should be is irrelevant; it is quite clear, on the basis of much past evidence, that that is precisely the way it is going to be.
Conflict in microcosm
Indeed, one can see this incident as representative, in microcosm, of the larger Arab-Israeli (or Israeli-Palestinian) dispute.
In the smaller case, the Israelis literally get away with what some would regard as murder (albeit under circumstances where they would claim justified self-defence). They can do it because the risk-benefit calculation clearly comes out in their favour.
In the larger case, the Israelis figuratively get away with what many would regard as the political-historical equivalent of “murder” (with an analogous set of historical justifications).
Slowly, inexorably, the Israelis are getting what they want – a “settlement” which they can unilaterally impose according to their own judgment of their long-term interests, however flawed that judgment may be.
While the toll for both Israelis and Palestinians may be considerable, and will be paid out over yet more decades, in the end the Israeli calculation, to the extent anyone really makes one, is that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA’s counterterrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.