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?"
Labour MP Robert Marshall-Andrews went further, "Israel is rapidly becoming a rogue and pariah state."
Over in the Knesset, Michael Ben Ari, of the right-wing religious National Union party, said: “The British are dogs but they are not loyal to us. This is anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism."
Israeli commentator Amir Oren in Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz pointed out the hypocrisy in Ben Ari's view: "A British agent using an Israeli passport to track down an IRA cell would not meet with much Israeli sympathy."
Couple the gestures and the angry words between Britain and Israel with the ongoing controversy between the Obama administration over the Israeli government's decision to build 1,600 new houses in disputed parts of East Jerusalem and you have what seems to be a critical moment for Israel and its top allies.
This did not happen overnight. In Europe, Israel has been under more critical scrutiny than at any time since 9/11 because of its incursion into Gaza last year. Europeans in general, and Britons in particular, express a strong concern about the rise of radical Islam, a much more visible phenomenon here than in America. Israeli intransigence in working toward peace is increasingly seen as a cause of the growth of Muslim radicalism around the continent. The Israeli government's unwillingness to even acknowledge this concern is causing it to lose public support.
Israel is fast becoming the Millwall Football Club of the international community. In the 1980s when football fan hooliganism was a major social problem in the U.K., the club with the worst reputation was Millwall. Their players were thuggish on the field and their fans emulated them in the street, fighting after the match. Millwall fans used to chant, "Nobody likes us and we don't care." That seems to sum up much of Israeli society's view of the world.
Despite the brouhaha surrounding the decision to build in East Jersualem, two major polls released in Israel this week show about half of the public in favor of the policy. The message to Israeli politicians is clear. There are no votes in a settlement freeze. The message to the world is also clear, we don't care what you think.
The deeper meaning of these events for all the international peace makers — the U.S. and Britain individually and as members of the Middle East Quartet — is this: Israel will not be governed by the international community's consensus, expectations or demands. The time has come to stop formulating policy premised on the belief that the Jewish state can be persuaded to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. By its deeds, Israel has demonstrated its policy with admirable clarity, the U.S. and its partners need to demonstrate their policy in a similar way, not with words but by actions.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect MP Robert Marshall-Andrews' party as Labour.