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LONDON, U.K. — Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was invited Tuesday to a ceremony marking the re-opening of Israel's embassy in London following extensive renovations. Instead, he went to the House of Commons and announced the British government was expelling an Israeli diplomat, reported to be Mossad's top man in Britain.
The British papers have universally described the incident as marking the lowest point of relations between the two countries in 25 years.
The back story:
Last January Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas's top military leader, was assassinated in Dubai. The Gulf state is honey-combed with CCTV cameras and its security police have state-of-the-art face recognition software at their fingertips. Within 24 hours, the Dubai authorities had released a list of suspects, most of them British, along with their passport photos.
Almost as soon as the list was made public the phone calls started coming in to British authorities from people whose names were on the passports but whose faces weren't. The passports looked real but the photos of the people in them were fake. An investigation was launched by Britian's Serious Organized Crime Agency. This is what the SOCA investigation found: The passports weren't stolen, they were "cloned."
How did Israel's secret service get a hold of the originals? If you have ever traveled to Israel you know about the scrutiny of your passport on arrival and departure. Israel is the one country in the world where you can understand your time being consumed at the airport for security checks. What is alleged is that passport control officers would take the passports into backrooms where information was "cloned."
It was this finding that led to the expulsion of the Mossad representative, and for the British Foreign Secretary to tell Parliament, "Such misuse of British passports is intolerable." Miliband added, "The fact that this was done by a country which is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the U.K., only adds insult to injury. No country or government could stand by in such a situation."
The Foreign Office issued special advice to British citizens traveling to Israel not to relinquish their passports: "The SOCA investigation found circumstantial evidence of Israeli involvement in the fraudulent use of British passports. This has raised the possibility that your passport details could be captured for improper uses while your passport is out of your control. The risk applies in particular to passports without biometric security features. We recommend that you only hand your passport over to third parties including Israeli officials when absolutely necessary."
Miliband's actions sparked off a war of words from the backbenches in Britain and Israel. Labour MP Robert Marris said, "Why do we continue to regard Israeli governments as friends and allies when they repeatedly demonstrate that ... we have no influence whatsoever?"