Hiding the identity of its operatives abroad is more problematic for Israeli intelligence organisations than for their Western counterparts. An MI6 agent carrying out a mission in Dubai, for example, can simply use a genuine British passport, issued by the Home Office in a different name, and masquerade as one more holidaymaker. A Mossad agent in Dubai cannot do the same thing with an Israeli passport.
The use of foreign passports by Israeli agents has caused the country diplomatic problems in the past, when Western governments have been embarrassed by the use of their travel documents.
Even the normally friendly Margaret Thatcher ordered to the Mossad branch in London to be closed when it was revealed that agents had been using authentic British passports. An attempt in 2004 by two Mossad operatives in New Zealand to obtain a local passport led to their arrest for six months.
Agents have been known to use forged passports, stolen ones and authentic ones with altered details. But the preferred documents seem to be authentic ones issued under a real person’s name, using an unwitting subject’s real details. As biometric passports become more common, this will become obsolete.
The reaction of a government to the use of its passports will usually be much greater if the media gets wind of it and they are forced to make a public protest.
In 1997, Israel’s relations with Canada suffered a setback after it was revealed that the Mossad had used its passports in the botched assassination attempt against Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, in Jordan. Following the arrest of the Mossad operatives, Israel was forced to hand over the antidote and save Mashaal’s life. That fiasco brought about the resignation of Mossad chief Danny Yatom and was a major embarrassment for PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
It is still unclear whether the repercussions of the Dubai assassination, if it was carried out by the Mossad, will have any effect on Meir Dagan, currently in his eighth year at the agency’s helm.
Mr Dagan is credited with totally changing the Mossad’s emphasis from secret diplomacy and intelligence-gathering during his predecessor’s regime, back to operations. He holds the national brief for preventing Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. So far he has seemed untouchable but there is no shortage of establishment critics waiting in the wing. A Dubai fiasco, if that is what it turns out to be, may be their opportunity.