“A long friendship is on the line”

The Age’s Diplomatic Editor Daniel Flitton:

Spies, lies and murder: Australia’s relationship with Israel has been dragged into the mud, with the potential that this scandal could get a great deal worse. An ugly episode, indeed.

No diplomatic niceties softened the message from Foreign Minister Stephen Smith yesterday – if Israeli officials have tampered with Australian passports, ”Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend”. To ensure he was heard, Smith made the point twice.

This is a disaster for Israel. The damage from claims that Israel’s spy outfit Mossad killed a Hamas leader in Dubai has now engulfed many of its staunch allies, courtesy of the assorted fake passports used by the hit-squad. British, Irish, French, German – and now Australian – documents are all implicated.

Democratic countries should stick together and no one doubts Israel is a state with many enemies. But Australia’s outrage is not confected. If Israel has abused the faith of allies, repairing trust will take a long time.

No Australian government has delivered Israel such a strong warning as Smith and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have done – not Bob Hawke, not John Howard, both ”long-standing friends of Israel”, as Rudd described himself yesterday. Remember, Australia backed Israel to the hilt in the Gaza war last year and was one of only 18 countries to vote against a UN investigation into war crimes during the campaign.

Australia has not yet accused Israel of carrying out the Dubai hit, or equipping the team with fake passports. Smith properly demanded Israel co-operate with investigations to get at the truth. Israel has a chance to prove its innocence – or come clean.

Much is yet to unravel in this story. Dubai’s authorities must have known about Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s role in Hamas, leaving the question why he was allowed into the country in the first place. Was he lured, or did the hit-team follow a tip-off?

But Australia would not have called in Israel’s ambassador to demand answers without strong evidence to back claims that these 26 people with links to Israel were involved in killing Mabhouh. It was clear yesterday that Smith and Rudd are deeply annoyed.

Israel has form in abusing passports. In a tangle with New Zealand in 2004, Israeli spies made a clumsy effort to steal the identity of a wheelchair-bound man who had cerebral palsy. Then PM Helen Clark blasted the actions as an unacceptable breach of New Zealand’s sovereignty and formal ties were severed for a time.

Rightly so. Passports are immensely valuable, Western documents especially.

Smith was at pains to point out that these were older passports dated from 2003, lacking enhanced measures to protect them from tampering. The government does not want Australians’ relative freedom of movement put at risk because of this breach.

Australian passports carry a message, a request from the Governor-General on behalf of the Queen, to allow the bearer to pass freely ”without let or hindrance” and afford him or her with every protection.

The facts of this case must first be established, but if it’s shown that Israel has abused Australia’s trust, that protection is forever diminished. A long friendship is on the line.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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