From FT, March 2 2010, by Andrew Roberts:
Is state-sanctioned assassination justifiable, or does it somehow de-legitimise the state that undertakes it?
Two articles in this newspaper last week, by Henry Siegman and David Gardner, have been violently critical of Israel in the wake of the assassination of the Hamas arms smuggler Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on 19 January.
Mr Siegman wrote of how “Israel’s colonial ambitions” and “checkpoints, barbed wire and separation walls” were “turning Israel from a democracy into an apartheid state”, thereby creating a “looming global threat to the country’s legitimacy”. Two days later Mr Gardner wrote of how Israel’s “militarist extroversion” over the Dubai murder demonstrated an “Israeli preference for instantly satisfying executive solutions to complex political and geopolitical problems” which would “widen the international battle-space for tit-for-tat attacks” and “encourage the perception that [Israel] is a rogue state”.
Both commentators are completely wrong. All that the Dubai operation will do is remind the world that the security services of states at war – and Israel’s struggle with Hamas, Fatah and Hizbollah certainly constitutes that – occasionally employ targeted assassination as one of the weapons in their armoury, and that this in no way weakens their legitimacy.
As for the “separation walls” and checkpoints that one sees in Israel, the 99 per cent drop in the number of suicide bombings since their erection justifies the policy.
There is simply no parallel between apartheid South Africa – where the white minority wielded power over the black majority – and the occupied territories, taken by Israel only after it was invaded by its neighbours. To make such a link is not only inaccurate, but offensive. If Arab Israelis were deprived of civil and franchise rights, that would justify such hyperbole, but of course they have the same rights as every Jewish Israeli.
Far from having any colonial ambitions, Israel wants nothing more than to live peaceably within defensible borders. But equally it demands nothing less.
Furthermore, rather than some kind of knee-jerk “preference for instantly satisfying executive solutions”, the decision to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh – assuming it was sanctioned, planned and carried out by Mossad alone, which is anything but clear at this stage – would have been minutely examined from every political and operational angle. Yet sometimes complex political and geopolitical problems do require the cutting of the Gordian knot, and this was one such.
When Britain was at war, Winston Churchill sanctioned the assassination by its Special Operations Executive of the SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the capture (and killing if necessary) of General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete; ditto Erwin Rommel. Just as with some Mossad operations, such as the disaster in Amman in 1997 when agents were captured after failing to kill Khaled Meshal of Hamas, not all Churchill’s hits were successful. But the British state was not de-legitimised in any way as a result.
The intelligence agents of states – sometimes operating with direct authority, sometimes not – have carried out many assassinations and assassination attempts in peacetime without the legitimacy of those states being called into question, or their being described as “rogue”. In 1985 the French Deuxième Bureau sank Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior trawler, killing photographer Fernando Pereira, without anyone denouncing France as a rogue state. Similarly, in 2006, polonium 210 was used to murder Alexander Litvinenko without Putin’s Russia being described as “illegitimate”. That kind of language is only reserved for Israel, even though neither Pereira nor Litvinenko posed the danger to French and Russian citizens that was posed to Israelis by the activities of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
The reason that such double standards still apply – more than six decades after the foundation of the state of Israel – is not because of the nature of that doughty, brave, embattled, tiny, surrounded, yet proudly defiant country, but because of the nature of its foes.
Even though one has to be in one’s seventies to remember a time when Israel didn’t exist, nevertheless there are still those who call the country’s legitimacy into question, employing anything that happens to be in the news at the time – such as this latest assassination – to try to argue that Israel is not a real country, and therefore doesn’t really deserve to exist. Real rogue states such as North Korea might be loathed and criticised, but even they do not have their very legitimacy as a state called into question because of their actions.
Those who wish to understand Israel’s actions and put them in their proper historical context should read Michael Burleigh’s cultural history of terrorism, Blood and Rage. Burleigh quotes a senior Mossad agent saying after the Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes: “If there was intelligence information, the target was reachable and if there was an opportunity, we took it. As far as we were concerned we were creating a deterrence, forcing them to crawl into a defensive shell and not plan offensive attacks against us.”
Is that attitude so very different from the pre-emptive targeted assassination of Taliban leaders that Nato carries out by flying drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan today? Yet are Messrs Siegman and Gardner going to call into question America’s legitimacy? No, that insult is reserved for only one country: Israel.