Monday, May 31, 2010

Expelling Israeli diplomat was a confected, self-serving exercise

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Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith announced the "confected, hypocritical, self-serving" expulsion on Monday, the first day of parliament's new sitting, the day it was likely to face its heaviest pasting over the resource super-profits tax; just as the earlier outburst of confected anger against Israel coincided with a spike in the pink batts controversy. It is "very low-grade behaviour to ruin a key relationship such as that with Israel for domestic political advantage."

 From: The Australian May 29, 2010 by Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor:

...this week... Kevin Rudd's government [expelled] an Israeli diplomat over the Dubai passports affair ...
"It was an over reaction," [Opposition leader Tony] Abbott says.

"Sure Britain has done this but other nations whose passports were misused have not.

"I think we need to understand that Israel lives in a far more dangerous world than the rest of us. Sincere friendship means an honest understanding of the dangers they face.

"I don't condone the misuse of Australian passports. The big difference between Israel and almost every other country is that Israel is under existential threat."

There is now a greater difference between the main parties over Israel than at any time since Gough Whitlam.

The Abbott-led Liberal Party is now much more deeply committed to the Israel relationship than the Rudd-led Labor Party.

Rudd's policy towards Israel mirrors his policy towards an Emissions Trading Scheme - an extravagant and emotional level of promise, followed by a complete failure of delivery, marred by short-term political expediency.

This is a tough judgment, but it is the only one that fits the facts.

The Hamas terrorist leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai earlier this year, almost certainly by Mossad agents. They used Australian, British, French and Irish passports.

First to the morality of the operation. Mabhouh was a leader of Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's violent destruction. He had much innocent blood on his hands. His assassination is morally exactly the same as when an Australian SAS unit targets an al-Qa'ida leader for attack in Afghanistan, as the SAS has often done. It is an even closer parallel to US drones hitting a terrorist in a border area of Pakistan. US President Barack Obama has decided, with Australian support, that merely fleeing the conflict zone of Afghanistan to the haven of Pakistan will not prevent an al-Qa'ida or Taliban terrorist being killed by US forces. So any Canberra moral outrage at the Israeli operation, which Foreign Minister Stephen Smith describes without qualification, or sophistication, as murder, is hypocritical and confected. Objecting to the misuse of Australian passports is entirely reasonable. But the manner in which the Rudd government has effected the expulsion demonstrates cynicism and short-term political opportunism.

When the passport misuse was first revealed in February, the Rudd government made a great song and dance about it. Emotions ran high. The government in effect sooled the Australian media on to savage Israel. It made sure there were cameras outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when the Israeli ambassador, Yuval Rotem, was summoned for a ritual dressing down.

For six weeks, the Israelis were cast into diplomatic outer darkness. There was no dialogue of substance between Canberra and Jerusalem. Then suddenly there was a thaw. As part of its initial response the government sent a delegation of Australian Federal Police to Israel. This was all show - and a pretty poor show given their well-publicised problems with Israeli traffic - as the AFP could tell the government nothing more than it already knew. The Israelis did the operation but there is no proof.

The long delay of three months with nothing happening, and the deliberate resumption of diplomatic dialogue, led the Israelis, and Israel's friends in Australia, to believe the government was going low key. Then, all of a sudden, some internal dynamic changed and a couple of weeks ago, the government sent ASIO director David Irvine to Israel. Irvine is an official of the highest possible quality. But his trip, and the fact that Smith this week publicised it, represents an overt politicisation of ASIO by the government. The Irvine trip, which could produce nothing more than the AFP trip, gave the government cover for the expulsion. The manner and timing of the expulsion reflect very poorly on Rudd.

The government decided to announce the expulsion on Monday, the first day of parliament's new sitting. This was the day it was likely to face its heaviest pasting over the resource super-profits tax, just as the earlier outburst of confected anger against Israel coincided with a spike in the pink batts controversy.

This is a government obsessed with the management of the daily media cycle. The Opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, instinctively supported Israel but did so incompetently and gave the government more opportunity for confected outrage. But it is very low-grade behaviour to ruin a key relationship such as that with Israel for domestic political advantage.

Smith claimed that he was taking the action to expel an Israeli more in sorrow than in anger.

But Smith made his statement in parliament to get the greatest possible media. Although the government had all the information it needed for any action for months, there was a sense of rush at the last minute. Bishop was rung at 11.30am and abruptly told senior officials were on their way to her office to brief her. The officials were in her office while Smith was making his noon statement. The Israeli embassy was not told of the impending expulsion until 11am.

This is a great contrast to the British behaviour. When the British expulsion was announced, the Israeli diplomat was already back home. If you are doing something to an old friend, more in sorrow than in anger, surely you tell the old friend first.

Similarly, it is a great breach of normal practice for a friendly country to publicise the visit of an agency head, such as Irvine. The fact the government publicised the visit is a politicisation of ASIO. It is the government using a national security smokescreen to cover what is entirely a political decision.

Smith also let it be known that the Israeli to be expelled was the Mossad chief in Canberra. In 2006, under the Howard government, Australia and Israel decided to station senior intelligence people in each others' countries. There was a Mossad officer among the Israeli diplomats in Canberra and an ASIO person in the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv. These are declared positions of friendly agencies. They don't spy on each other, but work together.

Australia and Israel for many years have had close intelligence exchanges. The chiefs of our other intelligence agencies also visit Israel, but quietly, and gain an enormous amount of information and insight from every visit. We also send senior national security personnel from across a number of agencies for short courses.

Smith said intelligence co-operation between Canberra and Jerusalem would now cool for an indefinite period. This will be entirely to our detriment. Despite the recent difficulties, not least its agents being filmed in Dubai, kilo for kilo, the Mossad is without question the best intelligence agency in the world.

Australia has significant interests in Iraq, is acutely concerned with Iran, and will, according to our own Counter-Terrorism White Paper, quite likely be a target of Hezbollah terrorism. On all these subjects no country is better informed than Israel. At this stage, Israel has not asked the ASIO representative to go home. Nor is it clear how long the ban on a Mossad agent coming to Canberra will be enforced. Equally, it is not clear Israel will bother sending a Mossad officer to Australia.

This whole sequence has the hallmarks not of an intelligence operation but a Hawker-Britton operation, the Rudd government using one of the most sensitive relationships Australia has to distract the media from the political agenda.

Julie Bishop's clumsiness helped the government. She was mistaken to stress it's not proven whether the Israelis did the operation and she was mistaken to answer yes to the idea that Australia also forges passports, even though I have reported this on two occasions in The Australian and Smith would not deny it at his press conference.

Some context is important. Australian intelligence agents, but also police and others associated with combating drug smuggling and the like, often travel on false Australian passports, that is, passports that do not carry their true identities. That is almost routine.

Much more rare, but not entirely unheard of, is using the passport of another nation. However, it's easy to construct a scenario where this might happen. Say, hypothetically, Canberra wanted to send an ASIS agent of Pakistani origin to Pakistan for an operation and didn't want any indication of an Australian presence. Such an agent might use a Pakistani passport. It's unlikely Australia would forge the passport itself as this is difficult and resource intensive. Instead it would probably borrow such a passport from the British, known to be master forgers, or the Americans.

The government's outrage against Bishop was entirely confected.

The government also suggested the Israelis had broken a specific agreement with Australia over passports. This is almost certainly untrue. The Israelis don't acknowledge their passport forgeries and to promise not to do it again can only be predicated on them having done it in the first place. No Howard government minister has any recollection of any such agreement.

The Israelis operate in a unique environment. They have to undertake operations in the Middle East. But use of an Israeli passport in most Middle East countries is impossible. So they are forced to use other passports.

Israel is incredibly beleaguered at the moment. It has never been under such sustained political attack. In many parts of the world, anti-Israel sentiment is morphing into traditional anti-Semitism. By making such a cynical and exuberant public relations bonanza out of this episode, the Rudd government is directly licensing the recrudescence of the worst sentiments imaginable. I can't conceive that this would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer's way.

The government dismayed many of its own supporters, who took its previous rhetoric about friendship with Israel seriously. Michael Danby is the Labor member for the critical Melbourne seat of Melbourne Ports.

He is in no sense a marginal figure in Labor. He is a former secretary of Labor's national security committee, a former Labor whip, and the chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs sub-committee, that is the most senior parliamentarian, outside the ministry, on foreign affairs.

Yesterday, he said: "The expulsion was the wrong policy response. Even if there was some obscure previous incident, Berlin and Paris are as sophisticated as the mandarins of Canberra and their reaction (no expulsion) demonstrates why we did not have to ape the British Foreign Office. Stephen Smith should have made a recommendation to the NSC having the more worldly overview, that this harsh proscription would feed the international campaign of delegitimation of Israel.

This harsh reaction by Australia comes just at a time when we want the Israelis to be as flexible as possible in the new peace talks with the Arabs. This folly, this over reaction, has unwittingly encouraged bigots elsewhere, who have their secret passions sanctioned. I have suggested a series of steps to the Prime Minister to overcome this successful attempt to blot Labor's copybook just weeks before an election."

That's what the government's friends think of it.
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