SYDNEY (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Australia said Monday it would expel an official from the Israeli embassy after finding the Jewish state was behind fake Australian passports linked to the killing of a Hamas operative.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australia remained a "firm friend" of Israel but no government could tolerate the abuse of its passports.
"The government has asked that a member of the Israeli embassy in Canberra be withdrawn from Australia," Smith told parliament, without identifying the official.
"I have asked that the withdrawal be effected within a week."
An investigation into how four Australian passports were used by the team that carried out the January killing of Hamas operative Mahmud al-Mabhuh in a luxury Dubai hotel found the documents were forgeries, Smith said.
He said the high quality of the forged passports pointed to the involvement of a state intelligence service.
"These investigations and advice have left the government in no doubt that Israel was responsible for the abuse and counterfeiting of these passports," he said.
Smith said this was not the first time that Israel had misused Australian passports, but he declined to comment on the other occasions.
"This is not what we expect from a nation with whom we have had such a close, supportive relationship," he said. "These are not the actions of a friend."
"The government takes this step much more in sorrow than in anger," he added.
The Israeli foreign ministry expressed disappointment.
"We are sorry for the Australian step, which is not in line with the nature and importance of the relationship (between the two nations)," said foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmore.
Suspects in the killing of Mahmud al-Mabhuh used the identities of 12 Britons, as well as those of people from France, Germany and Ireland along with the four Australians, Dubai police have said.
In March Britain kicked out an Israeli diplomat over the "intolerable" use of fake British passports also used in the killing.
The British government declined to specify the position of the expelled diplomat, but local media reported the individual was a senior operative in Israel's spy agency Mossad.
Mossad has been widely blamed for the killing of the Hamas operative but Israel maintains there is no proof for this claim.
At a news conference later, Smith said he would not identify the person asked to withdraw. But he said: "Our response on any measure is comparable to the British response."
Asked whether Israel had offered an explanation, Smith said: "In terms of the substance of these matters, Israel has not been drawn in those conversations or drawn on those matters."
The minister said the development would affect Canberra's ties with Tel Aviv but Australia wanted to have a good relationship with Israel, believing it was in the best interests of both countries.
He said contact on intelligence sharing and security matters may suffer.
"Clearly, as a result of today's events there will be something of a cooling-off period so far as relevant agencies are concerned," Smith said.
"We would want very much for those cooperative relationships to proceed but there does require a rebuilding of trust and confidence."
In Jerusalem Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister and minister for intelligence and atomic energy, told journalists his country's relationship with Australia was "strong and deep and broad enough to overcome this step."
"The relationship will continue because we face the same threats, the same problems ... in fighting for a more stable world," Meridor said.