The Mossad man who can’t keep a secret

An ex-Mossad chief’s frank public statements have punctured the myth of relentless Zionist expansionism.

Nathalie Rothschild

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With his hawkish image, Meir Dagan, the former boss of one of the world’s most awed spy agencies, hardly fits the conventional mould of the maverick whistleblower. Yet since stepping down as head of Mossad in January, after eight years in the post, Dagan has been spilling the beans in a series of unusual public statements and appearances.

Dagan put the Israeli political establishment and commentariat in a spin last month when he told delegates at a Hebrew University conference that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a cornerstone of Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s defence strategy, would be a ‘stupid idea’. He said military action could lead to a long war that might threaten Israel’s existence.

Weeks later, speaking at Tel Aviv University, Dagan reiterated this point, and also complained that Israel had failed to put forward a peace initiative with the Palestinians. He said Israel had been foolish to ignore the Saudi peace initiative, which promised full diplomatic relations in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders. He expressed concern about Israel possibly being pushed into a diplomatic corner as Palestinians prepare to push through a UN declaration in September that would recognise a Palestinian state based on the 1949 armistice lines.

The day after his Tel Aviv appearance, Dagan questioned the leadership skills of Netanyahu and of defence minister Ehud Barak. In a leaked statement to journalists, he reportedly suggested that his retirement and the near-simultaneous retirement of other top security chiefs – military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the director of the Shin Bet internal security agency, Yuval Diskin – had taken away a necessary alternative voice in decision-making, particularly regarding a possible military attack on Iran.

A number of Knesset members are now supporting an amendment to the Public Service Act designed to limit officials’ ability to comment publicly on matters regarding their office after they retire. The amendment has been dubbed the ‘Dagan law’. It focuses on former defence establishment officials, proposing that their media appearances be cleared by the Defence ministry.

Yet despite such nervous reactions, what is really baffling about Dagan’s statements is not their content. After all, as one commentator pointed out, the views he has put forward are entirely mainstream in the Israeli defence establishment, and even the conservative Jerusalem Post has published an editorial titled ‘Let Dagan speak’. Nor is Dagan alone in deeming ‘Bibi and Barak’ as ‘reckless and irresponsible’. In this sense, he is hardly a daring whistleblower revealing unknown truths from within the higher echelons of Israel’s political establishment. Instead, what is surprising is that Dagan, as a former Mossad chief, uttered the statements at all.

In doing so, he has, on the one hand, revealed a novel willingness to expose cracks within the Israeli establishment to the world, discrediting Netanyahu’s recent show of obstinacy towards the US. And on the other hand, he has reflected a shifting attitude among Israel’s supposed hawks towards a policy of withdrawal and concessions. Mossad is the embodiment of Israel’s bold security image, with a reputation for pursuing its interests at all costs, including deploying its feared assassination squads in foreign countries. So Dagan’s sudden public endorsement of compromise seems out of kilter. That is an approach usually pinned on the left.

Dagan is like something out of a conspiracy spy novel. The 65-year-old legendary ex-commander of Sayeret Rimon, the unit that was in charge of battling terrorist activity at the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s, uses a walking stick since being injured in action as a young man. The son of Holocaust survivors, he was born on a train in Siberia in 1945. He is also a vegetarian and an amateur painter. The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed him as head of Mossad at the height of the Second Intifada. Dagan was credited with restoring Mossad’s faltering reputation for bold lethal operations. Under his tenure, Mossad reputedly carried out assassinations of top Hamas and Hezbollah operatives as well as operations against Iranian and Syrian nuclear facilities. Some actions were more hit and miss. For instance, the assassination of Hamas founding member Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room last year sparked an international diplomatic row.

Following Dagan’s decision to go public with his disagreements with Bibi and Barak, one columnist in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot accused him of suffering from ‘retired general syndrome’. Others, too, have speculated that the unusual statements from the man who has masterminded some of Mossad’s most audacious assassinations was an attempt to catapult himself into the political arena. And he is not alone, critics say. As one commentator put it: ‘Once upon a time, the heads of the security establishment were known only by initials: now we know their names, hobbies and political inclinations.’

Regardless of whether Dagan has any personal interest in stirring things up in this way, his statements reveal that members of Israel’s right-wing elite are backing away from calls for territorial expansion. Such expansion was traditionally a core belief and demand on the right. Yet now it seems that even ‘ruthless hawks’ are having a change of heart and mind.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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