A former general, who later became head of the Mossad too, tells the story of when they entered the hut of the top-secret unit at the Israel Defense Forces’ enlistment center – the one whose name was only whispered to the well-connected: Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s reconnaissance unit. The soldiers were amazed by the thin, dark youth who threw the commando knife at the tree and never missed. But later it turned out he actually did not pass the selection process.
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Such descriptions can be deceptive. This former major general and Mossad chief who watched the youth with the knife was not Meir Dagan, who passed away Thursday morning after a long battle with cancer, but Danny Yatom. Dagan, then named Meir Huberman, was the one with the knife. The arbitrary decision by the Sayeret Matkal officers not to accept him was something that burned deep inside him and helped sculpt a wily and cunning officer, a fighting commander who amazed with his complex operations – but never was a member of the small, insider clique of the veterans of the unnamed unit on their climb to the highest ranks of the IDF, sometimes even with the blade of the knife facing at his comrades.
Dagan was the second Meir to run the organization. Not important and influential like Meir Amit, who arrived at the Mossad from the highest roles in the IDF – chief of operations, head of a regional command, chief of Military Intelligence – and turned the Mossad into the IDF’s most important partner in preparing the victory of the 1967 Six-Day War under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. But Dagan still stood out as Mossad chief under prime ministers he liked – Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – and less so under Benjamin Netanyahu.
His eight years leading the Mossad, a similar amount of time as Yitzhak Hofi, also one of the most important Mossad chiefs over the years, allowed Dagan to adapt the external intelligence, espionage and special operations agency to a new era and the 21st century. And this is not meant to minimize the achievements of his predecessor Efraim Halevy and his successor Tamir Pardo.
Dagan was dear to Sharon’s heart, going all the way back to their service together in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s, which was the secondary front for the IDF’s Southern Command during the War of Attrition but the most important arena in the fight against terrorism at the time.
As commander of the small Rimon commando unit, the younger sister of the famous Shaked reconnaissance unit, Dagan led the unit in thwarting and then penetrating the hideouts of terrorists who killed Israelis and Palestinians. More than once he disguised himself, camouflaged as a local Arab – even as a wretched beggar – and put himself at great risk by being as close as possible to the most dangerous wanted terrorists. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Sinai, Dagan again operated, with others, as Sharon’s private commando unit.
After the Yom Kippur War, Dagan advanced in the ranks of the Armored Corps, first as a battalion commander then a brigade commander and later commanded a division. Later he even commanded an entire corps, after taking a short detour to take care of the dark business in Lebanon as commander of the IDF’s liaison unit in southern Lebanon, the local enclave Israel held between the Litani Operation in 1978 and the first Lebanon war in 1982. And he was a partner of then-IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and Northern Command chief Avigdor Ben-Gal in various actions they conducted without approval of the political leadership – in the form of the superficial and amateurish oversight of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Menachem Begin.
As commander of Division 36 on the Golan Heights, Dagan did not hesitate to confront the head of the Northern Command Yossi Peled, and he caused friction as head of the IDF’s operations division with his direct commander, Deputy Chief of Staff Ehud Barak.
In 1991, during the Gulf War he came up with a hair-raising idea: to threaten Saddam Hussein that if he launched missiles with chemical warheads at Israel, Israel would retaliate by bombing the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As chief of staff, Barak tried to push Dagan out of the IDF and his post as an advisor on combating the first intifada, but Defense Minister Moshe Arens insisted on keeping the promise he made to Dagan of a promotion to major general and the post of deputy head of IDF operations, alongside Deputy Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
During those years he suffered from the delayed results of his various wounds and illnesses, was hospitalized and operated on, and finally gave up on his appointment as head of the Southern Command and retired from the military. This paved the way for Shaul Mofaz, who seemingly had exhausted his army career with his appointment as a division commander, to be promoted to major general, remain in the army and ultimately be appointed chief of staff four years later.
After Dagan had almost having faded away as the counterterrorism advisor to Netanyahu and Sharon’s campaign manager in the 2001 election for prime minister, Sharon appointed him to head the Mossad. Sharon preferred to have a general in the post, and seriously considered appointing Shlomo Yanai. According to Sharon’s confidante Dov Weissglass, then-Attorney General and present Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein pressured Sharon not to appoint Dagan, but Sharon had made his decision and dug in.
Dagan entered the job enthusiastically and went straight on the attack, brought with him from the military (especially from the Air Force) an up-to-date structure of how to build and operate the organization, and tailored the capabilities of the Mossad’s intelligence branch to support operations. He put special emphasis on thwarting Iranian nuclear plans and the fight against global terrorism.
The heads of other world intelligence services treated Dagan with honor and respect. The former head of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, revealed after the attack on the nuclear facility in Syria built with the North Koreans in 2007 the significant part the Mossad as an organization and Dagan personally had in decisions made by the George W. Bush administration to coordinate intelligence and operational details with Israel.
Dagan served for too long, maybe two years too many, as head of the Mossad. In doing so, he contributed to the fossilization and euphoric atmosphere that led to the bitter failure of the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010.
All in all, even this price pales in comparison to Dagan’s main effort, possibly his chief motive to continue to serve as head of the Mossad during the period when Netanyahu and Barak aspired to launch a potentially disastrous attack on Iran: to prevent, along with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, President Shimon Peres and a handful of other senior officials, the adventurousness of the graduates of that same secret unit, the one that turned him down, with the knife and the tree back at Tel Hashomer in 1963 – when the first Meir, Amit, arrived at the Mossad.