The imminent expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from London – a Mossad representative, according to some reports – is not the first such case in the history of UK-Israel relations. The most recent similar affair to taint the connection between the two countries took place in 1986, during the rule of the 'Iron Lady,' former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In this case, a Mossad agent left an envelope containing eight British passports in a telephone booth in Germany. The passports were forged for the Israeli Embassy in London, but were discovered. Britain, furious, demanded and obtained a promise from Jerusalem that Israel would never do such a thing again – a promise that seems to have been broken.
In 1988 Israeli diplomats were expelled from London after using a Palestinian as a double agent. The Palestinian, Ismail Siwan, was caught with a cache of arms in Hull and was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
As a result, Thatcher closed down the Mossad offices in London. Arie Regev, who headed the Mossad in London, was expelled and Yaacov Barad was declared a persona non grata.
'Israel is not immune'
Former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Zvi Stauber, said London has no interest in blowing up the affair, but "They had to do something. There is also a link with the general feeling that 'Israel is not immune'."
"If the US, which is the sign of what is permitted and what is forbidden in relations with Israel, is ready to pull up its sleeves in dealing with Israel, other states can too," he continued. "The issue of passport use is not central in the UK electorate, but I have no doubt that Labor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown were under internal pressure to do something. On the other hand, I think Britain has a relatively supportive government regarding Israel."
Former Israeli Ambassador to the UK Dror Zeigerman said he does not recall "such a harsh measure among friendly nations, and certainly not at the level and importance of Britain." Zeigerman, who served as Israel's envoy in London from 1998 to 2000, said he doubts Britain will order the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat, and that even if it does take such a drastic measure, "the question is, what is the rank and level of the diplomat to be sent back."
He added, "If an official diplomat of the State of Israel is indeed expelled by the British, Israel should be concerned about the future of its ties with Britain. We must remember that Britain is considered an ally that we need, and the State of Israel must inquire why and how this happened."
The Yedioth Aharonoth article on the 1988 expulsion
Former Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Liel said the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from London is a concerning and disturbing matter. "Over a decade ago the British uncovered Israelis' use of British passports and this did not bode well for us. It seems the British consider this a continuation, since at the time they gave us warnings. They seem to view this as a concerning succession."
Liel added that the affair could have severe implications on the other Western countries whose passports were used in the affair – Australia, Ireland, France and Germany.
He said he does not recall the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from a Western country in the past 30 years. "While the Foreign Ministry's records include a number of such moves, I do not recall such a move from a major Western country. This is a very exceptional and certainly concerning move, especially since it involves one of the countries that is closest to Israel."
Expulsion from Australia, Venezuela
Britain is not alone, and it remains unclear how other countries whose passports were allegedly forged in the assassination will respond. It should be noted that Israeli diplomat Amir Lati was expelled from Australia five years ago, after being suspected of working with the Mossad and forging passports in Australia and New Zealand.
Lati had met in New Zealand with Eli Kara and Uri Kelman who were arrested and sentences to six months in prison and later deported to Israel. Australian media reported at the time that Lati may have been expelled following sexual harassment claims.
A number of diplomatic expulsions took place in recent years in countries that have less friendly ties with Israel. For example, Israeli Ambassador to Venezuela Shlomo Cohen was expelled from Caracas along with his entourage following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Israel's actions in the Strip "genocide".
Mauritania, one of the three Muslim countries that held full diplomatic ties with Israel, also declared a freeze in relations following the Gaza war. A similar move was taken in Qatar. About a month-and-a-half after the war concluded, Nouakchott ordered the expulsion of Ambassador Mickey Arbel.
Aviel Magnezi also contributed to this report