Kim Sengupta: Israelis have been expelled before – and will be again

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The expulsion of the "senior diplomat" from the Israeli embassy – Mossad's head of station in Britain – marks a serious dip in relations between the two countries, especially at a time when intelligence-sharing on Islamist terrorism is at a premium.

Britain has effectively accused the Israelis of carrying out the assassination of the Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, despite the Foreign Office's protestations to the contrary. And in future, this could have legal repercussions for Israeli politicians visiting the UK.

It is not, however, the first time that an Israeli official has been told to leave the country or the first time that British documents have been used by Mossad. And, with the cavalier attitude displayed towards its allies by the Jewish state and its intelligence service on foreign policy matters, it is unlikely to be the last.

The issue of passports has come up before. In 1986, eight forged UK passports were found in an Israeli embassy diplomatic pouch in a German telephone box. The Israeli government subsequently promised not to use British travel documents again on clandestine missions.

However, the following year a Palestinian acting as an Israeli double agent was arrested in Hull with a cache of weapons, waiting to be used in his role as an agent provocateur. An irate Margaret Thatcher ordered the shutting down of Mossad operations in this country and Arie Regev, the then chief of the service in London, was ordered to leave.

The relationship, and intelligence-sharing, was resumed after a suitable interval and, even in that time, material relating to matters of life and death were passed between the two countries through the Americans. But on this occasion it is the US that is believed to have encouraged the UK to take a tough stance with the Israelis – a result of Washington's exasperation with the Netanyahu government over the building of Jewish housing in Arab east Jerusalem.

Information-sharing will resume in the future. But what has happened highlights broader issues about the way Mossad operates. The Israeli intelligence service may not care overmuch about the consternation caused by its use of passports from friendly countries, but the way the assassination was carried out has been viewed by Western intelligence as amateurish, with Israeli agents leaving a trail of photographs and documents that could identify them.

This was the latest in a number of Mossad missions deemed to have been flawed. And it is this weakness, rather than the anger of Britain and other countries, which may curtail the tenure of Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad's external arm. If that happens, London and Washington can pretend it was indeed their pressure which led to his dismissal.

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