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Fallout from murder plot leaves Israel vulnerable

After the excitement at a story worthy of Hollywood, the political fallout. Sharp questions are starting to be asked in Israel about an operation which left the physical appearance of the assassins exposed, appeared to have usurped the identities of uninvolved Israeli citizens, and risked a serious diplomatic backlash because of the operatives' use of European passports to enter Dubai.

If the assassination involved Israel's overseas intelligence agency, Mossad, as seems probable despite the denials, it will not be the first time it has hit trouble over its use of foreign passports.

In 2005, two Israelis were convicted of fraudulently trying to obtain New Zealand passports. When the government in Auckland secured an apology from the Israeli authorities it regarded that in itself as proof that the two men were acting on behalf of the state.

The Israeli press also reported that Israel was obliged to apologise when British passports, in use by the agency, were left in a phone booth in West Germany in 1987.

And ten years later, Canada protested over the use of its passports in the famously botched attempt to assassinate the Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal in Amman -- a failure which led to Jordan's insistence of the Gaza Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin being freed from jail.

The latest hit was not a repeat of the failed attempt on Mr Meshal. In Dubai, the assassins got their man, identified as a key figure in the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry from Iran and the murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. But the disclosure by Dubai police of the details of the operation has triggered two sets of potential ramifications.

The first is domestic -- the use of the names of apparently unsuspecting Israeli citizens who are dual-passport holders, and who appeared last night to have little obvious redress from official circles. This may be the easiest for Israel, assuming it is responsible, to see off. Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said he saw no reason for a parliamentary investigation. He argued it was not a problem for the government, and advised the people affected to hire a lawyer if they were worried.

In this the political establishment is helped by Israel's ambiguity towards Mossad. Like its nearest British equivalent, MI6, Mossad is 'avowed'; its head, currently Meir Dagan, is known -- and it has its own website.

Nevertheless, there are few opportunities for vigorous political debate on its activities; as Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, said yesterday about the operation, "Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies."

That said, the diplomatic fall-out may be less easy to contain. Among the many sharply critical commentators, Amir Oren has called for Dagan's removal, and warned of an impending "diplomatic crisis" with "countries whose passports were used by the assassins".

Assuming that the British investigation ordered by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown finds Mossad responsible, and that other countries including the UK and Ireland knew nothing of the Dubai operation, then Israel is unlikely to have heard the last of it.