Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

Israel remains defiant amid allies' growing anger

Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

As relations between Britain and Israel continue to unravel, in Jerusalem many Israelis feel that the outside world still fails to understand the problems - and threats - their country is facing.

Uzi Arad is a very important man. He's now the director of Israel's National Security Council, and National Security Adviser to the prime minister - a position he's held since Benjamin Netanyahu took office.

Uzi Arad
Uzi Arad's cordial relationship with Britain's MI6 is no longer

Uzi Arad has a reputation for fighting fiercely and territorially among the sharp edges that exist at the height of the Israeli power pyramid.

He was always hospitable whenever I, on occasion, used to visit him at home - before he took up his current job.

He'd spent more than 20 years in Mossad - Israel's secret intelligence service, and before he was appointed one of its directors, he was stationed for a time in London.

Once, at his house, he took me into his expansive library. He reached onto a shelf and extracted a book called Mandarin - the memoirs of the British diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson.

Uzi Arad opened the inside front cover. There, in green ink, was an inscription: "To Uzi, with the thanks and appreciation of your British friends for your co-operation and help and best wishes for the future."

The message was signed C - the initial that has always denoted the head of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service.

'Doesn't look good'

Such cordiality evaporated this week with the expulsion of a senior Israeli London-based diplomat who, by common consent, appears to have been the Mossad London station chief.

The Government's anger was stoked by the apparent use of fake British passports in the assassination of the top Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January.

In the careful language of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, the Serious Organised Crime Agency "was drawn to the conclusion that the passports used were copied from genuine British passports when handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or in other countries".

It doesn't take much for the gales of public opinion to blow in Israel - and barely had David Miliband finished his statement in Westminster than the gusts a continent away began whipping.

CCTV footage shows alleged assassins following Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (centre) out of a lift
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and his alleged asassins were caught on CCTV

A right-wing Israeli Member of Parliament reached into strangely Maoist terminology, and called the British "dogs".

A commentator in a right-of-centre newspaper argued that "millions of Muslims live in Britain, and Gordon Brown needs their votes in the upcoming elections".

At the other end of Israel's brightly coloured political spectrum, a resident of one of the country's most stalwartly socialist kibbutzim, or rural collectives, e-mailed me to say that "if Israel was directly or indirectly involved in the Dubai incident then there's no limit, apparently, to the arrogance and stupidity of this regime/administration".

But between the howls and harrumphs there were quieter noises. Some dwindled quickly into silence, and I found the voices I normally turn to in the Israeli intelligence community politely declining to speak or hanging up after the briefest of "it doesn't look good" comments.

One diplomat with a close connection to London did allow himself to be slightly more phlegmatic. "This is a standard dance the British have to go through," he told me.

"Of course, they won't admit it. They'll sell it hard. But I see no reason for them or for us to shift gears over bilateral co-operation."

Fundamental point

What is clear is that few Israelis are shedding tears for Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

On a street-corner in Jerusalem, half-way between the prime minister's residence and the official home of the president, Eitan was drawing heavily on a cigarette, outside his shop.

"Personally, I don't like violence," Eitan told me. "But the thing is, Hamas doesn't want to talk. And if someone is going to hit you, then sometimes you have to hit them first."

Behind Eitan's shrug is a wide belief in Israel that the rest of the world doesn't quite get it - that Israel is the only homeland the Jews have, that it's small and that it's trying to survive in a hostile neighbourhood.

  Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo
Despite US displeasure, the building of a Jewish settlement continues

It's that feeling which fuels the declamation "Jerusalem is not a settlement", repeated this week in Washington by Benjamin Netanyahu - and that the Israeli government will carry on building in the city wherever it chooses, even if that means the occupied territory of East Jerusalem, amid growing American displeasure.

And that is the much more fundamental point here.

There may be a moment of iciness between Britain and Israel over the forged passports.

Mossad London station chiefs may not, in the near future, receive cosy book inscriptions from the boss of MI6.

But Israel's belief in its exceptionalism, and the impatience currently shown by two of its closest allies, may point to a deeper rupture.

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