x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Israel's former hard-line spy chief rocks the boat over policy on Iran

Meir Dagan, the ex-head of Mossad, created a furore in Israel when he described a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as 'stupid and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, 'reckless' and 'irresponsible'.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right,  embracing the departing director of the spy agency Mossad, Meir Dagan, after thanking him in Jerusalem in January this year. Mr Netanyahu is less of a fan of Mr Dagan now, after the ex-spy called him 'reckless' and 'irresponsible.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, embracing the departing director of the spy agency Mossad, Meir Dagan, after thanking him in Jerusalem in January this year. Mr Netanyahu is less of a fan of Mr Dagan now, after the ex-spy called him 'reckless' and 'irresponsible.

TEL AVIV // During the eight years that he was at the helm of the Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan was known as a shadowy and ruthless operator against Israel's enemies.

But that reputation has crumbled in recent weeks after Mr Dagan, who retired in January, violated an informal convention of security and political figures in Israel to keep silent on their views on whether to attack Iran. Mr Dagan publicly created a furore in Israel when he described a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as "stupid".

Mr Dagan, 66, has also drawn the ire of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, by calling them "reckless" and "irresponsible" in their approach to Iran and the Palestinians.

He also said he backed the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, calling for normalising Israel's ties with Arab countries, which successive Israeli governments have ignored, and criticised the current government's failure to take the initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The counterattacks from the predominantly right-wing Israeli leadership were quick to come. Mr Dagan was lambasted by many as unpatriotic, as hurting Israel's security and as catering to the left-wing camp that promotes making more concessions to the Palestinians.

Ultranationalist cabinet officials called for his indictment and several hardline parliament members proposed legislation that would outlaw former security officials from speaking to the media for a year after they retire. Moreover, aides to Mr Netanyahu accused Mr Dagan of voicing his views as a way of drawing support ahead of a debut into politics.

But the pronouncements of Mr Dagan are being taken seriously in a country in which citizens often hold more respect for security figures than for politicians. His career in the army and later his term in Mossad have earned Mr Dagan a reputation as one of the country's most prominent, and most controversial, defence establishment officials.

Born in 1945 in the Soviet Union to parents who were Holocaust survivors, he moved to Israel at the age of five. While serving in the Israeli army in the 1970s, he established the Rimon commando unit. Its mission was to disguise Israeli soldiers as Palestinians and carry out assassinations of militants in the Gaza Strip. Mr Dagan was twice injured in combat.

He built up an image as a calculating and brutal commander, with Ariel Sharon, a long-time army colleague and former Israeli prime minister, reportedly once saying of Mr Dagan: "His expertise is to separate an Arab's body from his head."

Mr Dagan pushed Mossad to carry out more lethal operations after being tapped by Mr Sharon as its chief in 2002, but he has also been known for acting with caution. He has been reported to apply the "Dan test", named after his son, before every mission, in which he asks himself if the operation has been planned well enough for him to have allowed his son to take part in it.

Under Mr Dagan's leadership, Mossad has been credited with several high-profile operations. Among them is the intelligence obtained around April of 2007 about a partly constructed Syrian nuclear reactor, information that analysts believe helped prompt Israel's air strike on the site some five months later. The attack was controversial, with some intelligence analysts regarding it as premature because Syria appeared to be years away from completing the facility.

Mr Dagan is also believed to have overseen the assassination of Imad Moughniyah, a top Hizbollah leader, in February 2008, of arranging the death of the Syrian general Mohammed Suleiman six months later and the killing of the Hamas commander Mahmoud al Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room last year.

But he has also had several major fiascos. Among the most prominent ones is the diplomatic row that erupted in the aftermath of the Dubai hit, amid allegations that it was carried out by Mossad agents using forged passports from European countries and Australia.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae