The Israeli government will not be allowed to replace the senior Mossad station chief expelled from London over the cloning of British passports used in the assassination of a Hamas commander unless it offers a public assurance that UK citizens' documents will never be used again for clandestine operations. The Foreign Secretary David Miliband wants his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, to make the pledge. British diplomatic officials are insisting the situation is not negotiable.
Israeli media outlets have claimed that another operative would be sent soon to take the place of the Mossad official working at the Israeli embassy in London, who was asked to leave after a UK investigation concluded that there was evidence that British passports used by an assassination squad were cloned by Israel.
An Israeli hit team used the British and other countries' passports to travel to Dubai to murder the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, it has been claimed. A British inquiry established that the documents were cloned at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport and Israeli officials made surreptitious calls to check the travel plans of those whose identities had been stolen.
The Israeli government has shown no signs so far that it will acquiesce in Mr Miliband's demand that it pledge that "the state of Israel would never be party to the misuse of British passports in such a way". Such a declaration would be tantamount to an admission of Israel's guilt in the killing of Mr Mabhouh, something it denies. Mr Lieberman said: "There is no proof of Israeli involvement in this affair."
However, the Israeli government has also indicated that it will not retaliate by expelling a British diplomat. Officials privately acknowledge that the removal of the Mossad official, although damaging for relations between the two countries, will not impact too severely on the Israeli intelligence agency's work in the UK.
During a previous confrontation in 1988 when another Mossad agent, Arie Regev, was expelled from the UK, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a temporary ban on the exchange of intelligence. Mr Miliband's statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, announcing the expulsion of the Israeli diplomat, made no mention of a halt in information sharing.
Israel's mass-circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot said that the Israeli government has got off lightly in the affair: "Whoever forged the British passports knew that he might have to pay the price. And the price set by the British was a clearance-sale price."
However, Israeli government officials say they are reconciled to other countries following Britain's lead. Australia, France, Germany and Ireland are all investigating the use of their citizens' passports in the assassination and, it is expected, will announce sanctions. In the Australian capital, Canberra, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, said the Australian Federal Police would receive the report compiled by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency. "We take the misuse of Australian passports very seriously," he said.