Evaluating the worth of the Mossad's opinions
In practical terms, the moderate line attributed to Dagan, outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and various major generals seems preferable to that of Netanyahu-Barak, but Dagan has no advantage in a showdown with peers in the defense establishment.
All media outlets focused last week on former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. You could have gotten the impression that two dozen journalists were brought to the holy sanctum of Mossad headquarters, where Dagan taught them holy truths. Whether his views were articulated directly to the media or reached journalists from places other than Mossad headquarters, the prevailing fashion in 2011, in the era of WikiLeaks, is to set aside reliance on "foreign sources."
However it was delivered to the media, Dagan's message was clear. Iran, he predicts, will not have nuclear weapons before 2015. Dagan's assessment has a subtext: We, I, succeeded in secret efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear ambitions, so there is no need to pay a heavy price by leaving the shadows and facing the thunder, lightning and consequences of a bombing. If this is a correct interpretation of the message, its gist contradicts the line taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
In practical terms, the moderate line attributed to Dagan, outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and various major generals seems preferable to that of Netanyahu-Barak, but Dagan has no advantage in a showdown with peers in the defense establishment. In a marketplace of opinions based on the same intelligence data, his opinion is not superior to a contrary one held by other senior officials.
The Mossad is an entity that collates information and foils antagonists' plans and efforts. It has an intelligence branch, which was reinforced after the intelligence debacle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but its resources don't make it a serious competitor of Military Intelligence, just as the establishment of a Foreign Ministry research center did not create a triangular intelligence community (or a square-shaped one, in light of the strategic-assessment unit set up by the Shin Bet security service in recent years ).
The committee of the heads of the intelligence services does not normally confer with the Foreign Ministry's director general, or with the head of that ministry's research center, or with senior police officials - all these officials are constant discussion partners of intelligence chiefs in countries around the world. After the Mossad collects information from its sources and relays it to a general database accessed by authorized parties, its assessments have no special prerogative; they are used by whoever is authorized to use them. They are compared to other facts and evaluations, and incorporated in new assessments.
In principle, it would be wise to exempt Military Intelligence from responsibility for furnishing national policy assessments. MI is steeped in work, both as a source of information for the chief of staff and in the preparation of targets for military operations and wars. Yet as long as no better, civilian alternative is found, Military Intelligence's assessments are more important and authoritative than those of any other source, including the Mossad.
Toward the end of his term as head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin was more cautious about the pace of Iran's nuclear program. Yadlin talked about 2012, or even this year. His successor, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has yet to speak about this topic, but he has clear lines of responsibility. The official who risks causing a national disaster by blocking progress or work on a particular issue, due to an error in intelligence analysis, is the head of Military intelligence, not the head of the Mossad.
And the intelligence services are just one component in the equation. The missing variable is what the Israeli side chooses to do. So a full-sided assessment needs to be made, with the cooperation of government and the General Staff's planning branch. Dagan didn't provide a pure intelligence assessment, but rather a political statement designed to influence government policy, which is decided by the cabinet, the Knesset and in elections. Dagan has the burden of furnishing details, appearing in public, arguing his case and castigating his former boss, Netanyahu. The Mossad's assessment does not suffice.