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The Price of Vanity

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Since the publication of my detailed analysis of the Dubai hit, I have received two types of responses -- the first from people who congratulate me for having "such an active imagination," the second from people who call me a range of names, from traitor to opportunist, claiming that by publishing the story I risk the lives of operatives, and the success of operations, worldwide.

Well, first of all, let me assure you that in my imagination, Mossad operatives are much closer to James Bond than they revealed themselves to be in front of Dubai's security cameras, where they look more like Inspector Clouseau.

Israel, notorious for being the country that turned targeted assassinations into an efficient and ruthless war tactic, has always idolized the men and women who serve in its most secretive intelligence units. In the eyes of the Israeli public, they can do no wrong -- and if they do wrong, they should be pardoned.

The embarrassing Dubai scandal did nothing to change that notion. If anything, it gave the Mossad a PR boost.

A few months ago, I attended a social gathering and introduced myself to a British couple as an Israeli. "Quick," said the man to his wife, smiling, "make sure he didn't take our passports." The unveiling of Mossad operatives as short and balding, wearing outdated eyeglasses, oversized wigs, and slightly wrinkled suits gave them all a human face and got them one step closer to us, the ordinary people. And suddenly every single Israeli you meet at a party may be one of "them."

For Israelis, the intelligence establishment is the only governmental institution that continuously provides quality results, and its daring actions spark the imagination of millions around the world. When Khalfan published the pictures, Israelis got a chance to study the individuals plastered on the front page of every newspaper. This being a small country where everybody knows everybody -- or at least this is the conceit -- people immediately began a guessing game: Don't I know him? Wasn't he at school with me? Didn't we serve together in the army? Isn't that one the geeky next-door neighbor who claims he's only a boring accountant? One woman swore she had dated one of the men, saying, "He looked, behaved, and talked exactly like you'd expect a killer to behave, in bed and out."

The assassination, despite its sorry outcome and the waves of harsh criticism against their country that it stirred, aroused in some Israelis a counterreaction of proud patriotism. During the Purim festival, Israel's equivalent of Halloween, one of the most popular costumes was a tennis player with a gun. Hundreds of Israelis who have dual citizenships volunteered to give their foreign passports to the Mossad for use in its operations.

To open the newspaper and discover, among the faded passport pictures, our cousin's neighbor, our daughter's school friend, the nice guy from the corner shop, was a heartwarming revelation. It appears that our daring intelligence services employ a respectable blend of male and female operatives; some may be middle-aged; some could use a diet. No wonder the Mossad's official web site could barely support the dramatic surge in new job applicants.

And it is equally unsurprising that Israelis feel more protective of their operatives than ever. Journalists like myself are therefore expected to hold back criticism in the furtherance of the nation's morale. But let us not confuse national pride with the interests of the very same men and women we strive to protect.

From my experience, the intelligence community's harshest critics come from within its own ranks. One blogger not in that community has theorized that the operation was "planned that way," suggesting that the Mossad deliberately set out to make sure the Dubai police knew who'd done the killing so that they'd henceforth consider themselves warned, like in some Mafia movie. But those within the intelligence community know that this was not the case, and that the operation could have, and should have, been done better.

These brave, bright, hardworking people deserve some answers about who made the decision to send such a large force to Dubai and paid so little regard to the local authorities. The mistakes will come back to haunt these operatives personally, since they are now wanted by Interpol. Dozens of them will probably be left on the bench for a long time before they can go out on an operation again.

One also has to ask whether it was all worth it. Israel has a long history of assassinations in the interest of national defense, usually by targeting scientists who work on the development of new weapons. This time, that target was an arms dealer who played a role in the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip. Only last week the Israeli security service published a report stating that throughout 2010, Hamas grew stronger by hoarding more arms than ever before and by acquiring new types of weapons, such as the Russian Kornet antitank missile, which was introduced to the area only last month.

Many members of Israel's intelligence community claim that it was a terrible mistake to eliminate al-Mabhouh, considering the difficult operational conditions that prevailed. Any such operation in a "target state" (i.e., one of the countries hostile to Israel) is a monumental risk, not only for the Mossad but for Israel itself. In order to justify such a mission, the target of the hit has to constitute a grave danger to the nation, and it is not enough that he deserves to die because of terrible deeds he may have perpetrated in the past. There is no doubt, say senior sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, that al-Mabhouh should have been killed, if only because of the brutal murder of the two soldiers, but was his elimination worth the challenges of so complex an operation, and in a target state on top of everything else? My sources said that only if al-Mabhouh had had a nuclear warhead in his luggage which he was about to send to Gaza would the operation have been worth the risk. Anything else was a serious lapse in judgment by whoever approved the operation -- even if it had been planned in an exemplary fashion, which it obviously had not. It led to unprecedented baring of Mossad personnel and methods, far more than any previous bungled mission.

It is always hard to determine what effect an assassination will have on history, and it is very unlikely that anyone thought the killing of al-Mabhouh would completely stop arms smuggling into Gaza. But in this case the question of what was gained in comparison to what was risked seems more relevant than ever.

Protecting the safety and the valuable work of all these people whom we now feel we know personally -- the cousin's neighbor and so on -- means asking their employers tough questions, in the hope that it will result in a much better decision-making process in the future.

Read more at GQ.com.

Ronen Bergman is the senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper
Yedioth Ahronoth and the author of several books, including The Secret War with Iran. He is currently writing a book about the history of the Mossad's targeted killings.