Every Thursday, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and a few of his staff members report to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office in the old Defense Ministry building in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, to present an operation for approval or report on one that has taken place. Olmert loves these moments more than any others in his job. He wants to know the details, to see the faces of the soldiers before the operation. He usually approves Dagan's proposals.
Over the past two years Dagan has become the most important security official close to the prime minister. His evaluations on the Second Lebanon War and the Mossad's cumulative achievements vis-a-vis Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have strengthened his status and led Olmert to approve more and more daring missions.
During Sunday's cabinet meeting, in which Olmert announced his resignation, he said: "I believe the processes the government of Israel has enacted under my leadership in various areas, those that can be told and those that cannot, will yet receive their proper place in the history of the State of Israel."
Olmert did not go into detail, but over the past year, in September 2007 the nuclear facility Syria was building was bombed; Hezbollah attributes to Israel the assassination of a senior leader, Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February; the foreign press reported the blowing up of a chemical weapons factory in Syria, in which dozens of Iranian and Syrian technicians were killed; an Iranian Revolutionary Guards convoy delivering weapons to Hezbollah was blown up near Tehran. No one claimed responsibility for these actions.
In June, Olmert announced to the cabinet that Dagan's tenure would be extended by another, seventh year, telling the ministers "there is no doubt that the work of the Mossad has taken off" thanks to Dagan.
The Mossad's main thrust under Dagan has been to thwart Iran's nuclear plans. According to several sources, Israel managed by diplomatic pressure to obtain a delay of as much as a decade in Iran's attaining nuclear capability, even if it has not been stopped.
"We are being accused in the media of exaggerating warnings and ultimatums," sources in the intelligence community have said. "For years we have been saying that Iran is moving toward a nuclear bomb, and it hasn't happened. The reason the evaluation has not come true is because of the pressure brought to bear on Iran."
In the last year of Sharon's term, the defense establishment presented a list of necessary equipment and organizational aspects to confront the Iranian threat. This included sophisticated deterrents and protection of sensitive facilities, with huge price tags. "Forget it," Dagan reportedly said. "Let me deal with Iran my way. I promise to give you deterrents in time."
Over the past year a number of reports of malfunctions have emerged regarding the Iranian nuclear project. Among them: An Iranian general who defected, Ali-Reza Asgari, had been involved in leading his country's contacts with Hezbollah; an Iranian dealer in sophisticated communications equipment was charged with spying for Israel and sentenced to death; his sons, engineers who helped build the Iranian centrifuges, were fielded as double agents for the CIA.
"Thwarting" involves psychological warfare, leaks to the international media and diplomatic moves to embarrass the Iranians and enlist Western countries against it. In one case, the Iranians destroyed a facility near Tehran they were using to develop nuclear weapons, and covered it with a soccer field after its existence was leaked to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Dagan is in charge of this work as part of the mandate he received from Sharon, with the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Commission (and at certain points the Strategic Affairs Ministry headed by former minister Avigdor Lieberman).
Creativity and daring
Some of those who warn most vociferously against the Iranian threat, including former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh and Defense Ministry security department chief Amos Gilad, are full of praise for Dagan. Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who recommended Dagan's appointment to Sharon, said he restored the Mossad to being "Israel's long operational arm, with the ability to go anywhere and do anything it wanted."
Sneh has called Dagan a man of "exceptional operational imagination and daring."
President Shimon Peres, who knows the Mossad from the day it was born, says Dagan "brought the Mossad back to its days of glory." The army has some criticism, especially Military Intelligence, for what appears to be the unjust reaping of credit by the Mossad for successful operations. But even Dagan's adversaries are said to acknowledge his creativity and daring.
The Mossad's budget and human resources have grown by dozens of percents during Dagan's tenure. He presents his operations in Knesset sub-committee on the secret services, which approves his funding, as if he were the CEO of a cellphone company showing the board how many new subscribers he has enlisted.
The Mossad's work is more complex than ever before. When Europe was the arena and the PLO the adversary, things were easier. The Iranian focus has changed the organization's activity, and stricter supervision at airports and border crossings since 9/11 have made it more difficult to create convincing covers for its operatives.
Dagan has strengthened ties with parallel services in the U.S. in the struggle against Iran and the global jihad. That did not come easily. On Dagan's first visit to Washington as head of the Mossad, he explained to his hosts the need for diplomatic isolations and economic sanctions, and above all, secret operations. The Americans' response was cool.
Last week, CIA chief Michael Hayden had warm words for the role played by an unnamed foreign intelligence agency that he said initially identified a structure at Al-Kibar as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea. He likened the cooperation to "working together on a complex equation over a long period."
Dagan came to the Mossad from the outside six years ago, and found the organization's veterans suspicious of him. News stories from his early years are full of reports of dismissals of senior people and anger among the old-timers. Dagan's predecessor, Ephraim Halevi, was more of a diplomat, who avoided daring operations. Especially after two serious mishaps - the failed assassination of Khaled Meshal in Jordan and an attempt to bug the Iranian Embassy in Cyprus - and in response to the demand to rehabilitate the agency, Halevi began work to thwart the Iranian threat, which Dagan made a major focus.
Sharon knew Dagan from their days together fighting terror in Gaza. Dagan won a medal for jumping on a wanted man and wrestling away a grenade after the man had pulled the pin. The fighters in his unit disguised themselves as Palestinians, booby-trapped grenades belonging to the Popular Front, and gained a reputation in the Israel Defense Forces as merciless assassins.
The big chance
Citizen Dagan is said to love classical music, jeep trips, smoking a pipe and nature. He has been heard to joke about the fact that he is a vegetarian despite his particular operational expertise. He served for a few years as head of the counterterrorism unit in the Prime Minister's Office, and tried his hand as a security consultant.
He stayed in contact with Sharon, and served as his campaign headquarters chief on election day in 2001. After Sharon's election, Dagan was enlisted to head a special body to fight the funding of terrorism, and a year-and-a-half later he was appointed head of the Mossad. Yossi Sarid opposed what he said was an appointment that smacked of the political advancement of a personal associate, but senior Labor party officials Sneh and Ben-Eliezer were in favor of their old friend's appointment.
Sharon was said to appreciate Dagan's operational capabilities, but less so his diplomatic acumen.
Olmert's entry into power was Dagan's big chance. Olmert did not have the military background of his predecessor, and Dagan's expertise could come to the fore. Olmert used to say that nothing preoccupied him more than the Iranian threat.
Dagan's biggest step forward came as a result of his Lebanon experience. The Winograd Committee that investigated the 2006 war cited his evaluations, which were far more accurate than the IDF's. Four months before the war, in a cabinet discussion over Hezbollah's attempts to kidnap soldiers, Dagan and Gilad warned that a conflict that developed would not end without a ground operation. The day Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted, on July 12, 2006, Dagan began to insist that a military response would engender a long conflict, in which the home front would suffer, and an air operation would not be enough to decide the outcome.
Dagan is now at the peak of his power. Premier-designate Tzipi Livni, a former junior officer in the Mossad, receives continual updates from him as foreign minister. But she has no experience of approving special operations. It will be intersting to see if she continues the line of approving Dagan's daring operations, or will step back and sleep on things before making her decisions.
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