Monday, 22 February 2010

The Dubai killing and European tolerance

The Daily Star
Tuesday 23 February 2010
By Michael Glackin

In diplomatic circles, Israel increasingly resembles a distant relative who drunkenly turns up at family functions, does something embarrassing, and leaves the rest of the family wringing its hands in bewilderment.

Whether or not firm evidence emerges linking Mossad to the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on January 19 (and as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was at pains to point out last week, there is currently no proof of Israeli involvement), it is clear there are few better suspects if you follow the old adage of “Who benefits?”

It is equally clear that Ireland, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, whose passports and citizens’ names were used by the 11-member hit squad, do not want to make a fuss about the affair. While various politicians were busy feigning concern last week, there is a tacit acceptance among Western governments that events like the murder of Mabhouh are merely things Israel is liable to do from time to time, and that these are best ignored or forgotten as quickly as possible.

The laughably fruitless 15-minute meeting in London on Thursday between the Israeli ambassador, Ron Prosor, and Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent secretary who heads Britain’s diplomatic service, underlined this point. Prosor told reporters after the meeting that he “was unable to add any information and could not shed new light” on the affair. Meanwhile, despite its concern over the circumstances surrounding the assassination, the Foreign Office was unable to say whether Israel was even cooperating with the British Serious Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) investigation into how British passports in the name of six British nationals living in Israel were used by the hit squad.

In the mid-1980s, Mossad was forced to promise never to use British passports to help its agents carry out covert operations. The intelligence agency did so when the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, effectively closed down its British operation after the discovery of a bag of forged British passports lost by a Mossad agent. And five years ago Israeli agents were arrested in New Zealand trying to acquire a passport in the name of a quadriplegic. Again, Israel had to promise not to repeat the exercise.

There are a lot of reasons why the UK wants the Mabhouh assassination to quietly fade away. British diplomatic relations with Israel are already strained. Aside from the perennial complaints from Israel about the “Arab bias” of the British Broadcasting Corporation in its reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is also the matter of a British court issuing an arrest warrant last year for Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Livni was forced to cancel a visit to the UK after pro-Palestinian groups applied to the courts to issue the warrant because of her role in war crimes allegedly committed during the Gaza war.

Amid the political bickering, intelligence-sharing over terror groups between the British and Israeli secret services has also been threatened, without so far being terminated. Indeed, despite official denials, it is clear that the Brown government knew some time ago that British passports had been used by Mabhouh’s killers. An Irish Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed that Irish officials first looked into reports of Irish passports being used by the assassins as far back as February 5.

In fact, speculation is rife that MI6 was tipped off that Israeli agents were going to carry out an “overseas operation” using fake British passports. The British Daily Mail even had a member of the Mossad saying that the Foreign Office was told about the assassination a few hours before it took place, although the identity of the victim was not disclosed.

All this comes at a time when pressure is mounting on the government to hold a public inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the war on terrorism after British judges ruled that the country’s intelligence personnel had been complicit in the torture of terrorism suspects. Fears persist that the British failure to take a firm stand on the Mabhouh case, such as the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, will play into the hands of Islamist terrorist groups seeking to recruit members within the UK’s borders.

The rather subdued hue and cry shifted to Brussels yesterday, where Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, met the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, along with the ministers of the other European Union member states whose passports were used in the assassination. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East program in London, believes all four governments are keen to bury the issue. “By dealing with it at the European level, within the council of ministers, they are signaling they want the issue to die quietly. It’s quite obvious no one really wants to do anything.”

Perhaps this best explains why Israel seems to be enjoying all the publicity. On the day Prosor met with Ricketts, the Israeli Embassy’s official Twitter feed posted a joking reference to the killing, and the fact that two of the assassins were dressed in tennis gear: “You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on Dubai target.” The headline linked to a report on the victory by the Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer, who had reached the finals of the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Peer is probably more upset about the crass joke than any Western government is about the assassination.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Blair regretted nothing; learned nothing

The Daily Star
Tuesday, February 2 2010
By Michael Glackin

Quite why anyone should be surprised by Tony Blair’s “Je ne regrette rien” performance at the British government’s Iraq inquiry in London last week is a mystery. Did anyone really expect him to express regret?

His failure to express remorse for the deaths of 179 British servicemen he ordered into Iraq while sitting in a room surrounded by their bereaved families – let alone the 100,000 plus Iraqis who died during the invasion and its aftermath – was crass in the extreme, but it is simply another illustration of the cocoon of self-belief the former prime minister has wrapped around himself.

“We didn’t end up with a humanitarian disaster,” he told the inquiry, ignoring all the thousands of dead, the 4 million or so refugees and the utter destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure. “If I am asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, that our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons out of office and out of power, I believe indeed we are,” he insisted, oblivious to the spate of terror attacks perpetuated by Islamist extremists that have occurred in Europe since 2003 and continue to wreak havoc on an almost daily basis in Iraq.

Not only would Blair invade Iraq all over again, but he spent much of his six hours in front of the inquiry urging the West to take military action against Iran, and citing the same arguments used to justify overthrowing Saddam.

Except of course, Blair’s self-belief and conviction did not always tally with the facts and it is to the inquiry panel’s shame that it failed to press him on the glaring contradictions in the reasons he gave for going to war, and the reasons he gave Parliament and the public in 2003.

Indeed the inquiry panel, chaired by former civil servant Sir John Chilcot and including another former civil servant, Baroness Usha Prashar, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne and historians Lawrence Freedman and Martin Gilbert, seemed cowed by Blair. Despite his nervous start, Blair gave a defiant performance batting away the panel’s long-winded, largely unchallenging questions and reminding everyone of his skills as a communicator.

The inquiry was never going to tell us anything new about the reasons why Blair supported US President George W. Bush in his desire to oust Saddam Hussein. What it did reveal is how much Blair has shifted his position from his original cheerleading for war based on the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

Blair’s bizarre insistence in his testimony that his “tolerance” of Saddam’s regime changed after the 9/11 attacks was nonsense. Not even the most imaginative conspiracy theorists believe Iraq was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Blair certainly doesn’t, but he still managed to hint at a possible link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, telling the inquiry that “[Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi [late leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] did go to Iraq prior to the invasion.”

Conceding there was no solid link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, Blair insisted instead that “suppressed and failing states,” such as Iraq under Saddam, become “porous” and thus easier for terror groups to infiltrate. He also talked vaguely about the “calculus of risk” and Saddam’s ability to “reconstitute” his [presumably old or decommissioned] weapons of mass destruction and pose a risk in future. All that’s a far cry from telling Parliament before the invasion that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction program is active, detailed and growing.”

Moving on to the occupation, Blair told the inquiry that no one could have predicted that Al-Qaeda and Iran would try to destabilize the coalition’s efforts in creating a government once Saddam was toppled. Really? If, as Blair insisted, Iraq was “porous” surely it was obvious that insurgents such as Al-Qaeda and other Iranian-backed terror groups would quickly move to fill the void left by Saddam’s ousting.

Yet the inquiry panel failed to bring Blair to account on any of these contradictions in his reasons for going to war and failures to provide security in its aftermath.

Why? Perhaps because one of the other things the Iraq inquiry has revealed is the chumminess of the British establishment. Several of the panel members are hardly people likely to press the former prime minister. Freedman wrote significant portions of Blair’s famous Chicago Speech in 1999 in which the prime minister, in the wake of the West’s intervention in Kosovo, argued for international military intervention to prevent humanitarian disasters and achieve regime change. In suggestions for the Chicago speech Freedman had written: “Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.” His suggestions included a justification that intervention without a United Nations mandate can be necessary because the UN is often constrained by the Security Council’s unwillingness to support military action.

Meanwhile, Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, claimed in 2004 that Blair and Bush were a modern day Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chilcot and Prashar, in turn, received honors during Blair’s premiership: a knighthood in the case of Chilcot and for Prashar a seat in the House of Lords.

In short, Blair wasn’t exactly facing the Spanish Inquisition.

Ultimately, Blair’s testimony, and that of earlier witnesses, reinforces the view that he arranged the intelligence on Iraq weapons of mass destruction to suit his political desire to back Bush. Why he was so keen to do so remains a mystery for now, but his testimony also confirms that Bush-Blair was a lopsided partnership. Blair admitted his relationship with Bush was not one of quid pro quo, where the United States would reciprocate British support. Thus Blair was unable to get Bush to advance the paralyzed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “You could describe me as a broken record in that period” he told the panel describing his many unsuccessful pleas to Bush that movement on the Palestinian issue would help to solve their problems in Iraq.

Broken record? Lap dog might be a more appropriate description, and whatever Blair’s confident but twisted view of the war and its aftermath, that is how he is likely to be remembered in the world outside his cocoon.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star