Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israel defence Forces, spoke out last week against ex-military and intelligence officials who are expressing doubts about the efficacy of a preemptive Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear project.Gantz, testifying in the Knesset, said, “There is a lot of chatter and conversation regarding Iran. Very few people know what is real and what is not, or what can be and what cannot be.” Gantz named no names, but his targets were quite obviously three men: his predecessor as chief of staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi; the former head of the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, Yuval Diskin; and Meir Dagan, the recently retired chief of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service.
It is Dagan who has taken the lead in criticising his former boss, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, for contemplating a preemptive aerial strike. Dagan came out of the gate early and strong, stating, in early 2011, shortly after his retirement (a retirement that was forced by Netanyahu), that attacking Iran is a “stupid idea.” He has not let up since.
For those of us who have asked, on occasion, whether Netanyahu and Barak are actually preparing to strike Iran or are simply trying to bluff the international community, Dagan’s harsh, and repeated, statements about the plans of the current government need to be taken seriously: Dagan believes firmly that Bibi and Barak are not bluffing. Which is why he is so agitated.
Earlier this month, I accompanied David Bradley, the chairman and owner of the Atlantic Media Company, on a visit to Dagan’s Tel Aviv apartment in order to discuss the Iran issue. (David and I spent much of our time in Israel interviewing senior officials on this issue, though in Jerusalem as well as in Amman and Ramallah, we also talked about the stalled peace process – but more on that later).
When David and I walked into the lobby of Dagan’s very modern apartment building, we noticed a couple of suspicious looking young men loitering near the elevator. One of them approached us and said, simply, “He’s waiting,” and then put us on the elevator. Dagan answered his own door, greeting us in a kind of gruff, matter-of-fact manner – he is, at 67, rotund, but there is a hardness to him that is easily discernible. Before joining the Mossad, he was one of Ariel Sharon’s favourite generals, and he made his career in the Israel defence Forces as a renowned hunter of terrorists. He is said to have devised some of the most effective anti-terror raids Israel has ever conducted.
We sat in his living room, which is decorated with his own paintings; like Peter Zvi Malkin, the legendary Mossad agent who seized Eichmann in Argentina, Dagan is a painter, but a painter of simple, almost pastoral scenes. One painting over his shoulder caught my eye – an old man sitting in an obviously eastern market. I asked him what inspired the painting. “It’s an old man I once saw in Tabriz,” he said. Tabriz, of course, is in Iran.
His paintings may be naïve, but Dagan himself is not. When he says he doesn’t believe Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing, I tend to believe him. It seems unlikely that a man like Dagan is easily tricked. At one point, we asked him if he believed there was even a small chance that he was the target of a deception campaign run by the prime minister and defence minister. After all, Dagan’s criticisms of what he sees as Netanyahu’s recklessness have quite efficiently buttressed fears in Iran, and across the world, that Israel may launch a precipitous strike. Dagan’s public criticisms of Netanyahu and Barak have been quite useful to the Israeli government, which needs its threats to be understood as credible, both in Tehran and in Washington. Dagan, however, dismissed this notion out of hand. “They are very serious,” he said, referring to Netanyahu and Barak. “I’m taking the threat of an Israeli attack very seriously.” He added, with a measure of disgust, and incredulity, in his voice, “If the prime minister and defence minister are creating a deception campaign against the intelligence apparatus then they don’t deserve their jobs.”
It is highly unlikely that Dagan would fall victim to such a deception campaign (which would, of course, be difficult for Netanyahu and Barak to execute over time, especially inside the Israeli intelligence system). What is only slightly more likely is that Dagan himself is part of the deception campaign, playing the role of the rogue ex-intelligence chief in order to advance his government’s goal of concentrating the world’s attention on the Iranian problem. My understanding is that some Iranian officials believe this to be the case, but it is a) impossible to prove, and b) fairly implausible, even for the Middle East.
What is most likely is that Dagan’s criticisms are entirely sincere. They certainly seem heartfelt. In our hour-long conversation, Dagan outlined his many objections to the idea of an Israeli strike, but he began by disavowing the notion that he is anything like a dove. He does not believe that Israel could easily survive in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran, and he believes that the Iranian regime might not be entirely rational, that elements of the Islamic Republic’s leadership might be motivated by extreme eschatalogical beliefs to contemplate committing unthinkable acts.
In other words, Dagan is someone who takes seriously the genocidal threats of Iranian leaders, and their nuclear intentions – “Iran has come to the conclusion that it needs a bomb” — and it is for this reason that he made himself the principal architect of Israel’s program of anti-Iranian sabotage, subterfuge and cyberwarfare (the last one being run jointly with the United States, as David Sanger has recently shown.) One of the criticisms I hear of Dagan, particularly in Israeli Air Force circles, is that he believes a bit too much in the capacity of Israel’s intelligence services to subvert the Iranian nuclear program by themselves. (Dagan would not talk about this, naturally: When I noted that he directed the Mossad’s anti-Iran operations of the past several years, he looked at me stonily – never averting his eyes – and said, “I’m not aware of that.”)
All this is to say that Meir Dagan is not a pacifist. He told David and me explicitly that the threat of military action should be held out as an absolute last resort, but he is angry that Israeli leaders have turned what should be understood as a problem for the entire world into a specifically Israeli issue. “We made a huge mistake by making this our problem,” he said.
But what angers him most is what he sees as a total lack of understanding on the part of the men who lead the Israeli government about what may come the day after an Israeli strike. Some senior Israeli officials have argued to me that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities might actually trigger the eventual downfall of the regime. Dagan predicts the opposite: “Judging by the war Iran fought against Iraq, even people who supported the Shah, even the Communists, joined hands with (Ayatollah) Khomeini to fight Saddam,” he said, adding, “In case of an attack, political pressure on the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my mind that this will also provide them with the justification to go ahead and move quickly to nuclear weapons.” He also predicted that the sanctions program engineered principally by President Obama may collapse as a result of an Israeli strike, which would make it easier for Iran to obtain the material necessary for it to cross the nuclear threshold.
Dagan believes that sanctions may still yet work, especially the sort of sanctions, combined with sabotage programs, that threaten the stability of the regime. If the Iranian economy is squeezed in a way that causes average citizens to rise up against their government’s policies, Dagan believes that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, might be forced to shelve his nuclear ambitions. And Dagan believes the tempo of sabotage should, if anything, be increased. “Covert operations have a better impact on proliferation than an attack.,” he said.
Dagan is quite convincing on these points, but what is even more convincing to me is his C.V. He has devoted his entire life to the defence of the Jewish state. And like Netanyahu, he fears a Second Holocaust. The first one took an atrocious toll on his family. In his Mossad office, Dagan displayed two photographs taken by German soldiers as they were about to carry out the murder of the Jews in the Polish town of Lukov. The photographs show other Germans standing over a kneeling Jewish man draped in a tallis, a prayer shawl. The man, who was apparently executed moments later, was Ber Erlich Sloshny, Meir Dagan’s grandfather. Dagan told visitors to his office who saw the photographs this: “When I look at these photographs I promise that I will do whatever I can to make sure that something like this never happens again.”
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