Meir Dagan's Most Daring War Was the One He Helped Prevent

One must first understand former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to understand former general and Mossad chief Meir Dagan - both were sorcerer's apprentices turned sorcerers.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, congratulating Meir Dagan, the incoming Mossad chief, at a ceremony held at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 30, 2002.
Sa'ar Ya'acov

For all of Meir Dagan’s operations and feats of derring-do, the former Mossad chief’s most important war was the one he helped prevent, the war with Iran. This constituted excellent proof, relatively rare in Israel’s history, of his maturation from someone who executed tactics to someone who participated in shaping strategy. That’s what 40 years in the defense establishment, culminating in his leadership of the Mossad, did for him – that, and the patronage of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

To understand Dagan, it’s necessary to understand Sharon. And for both men, the key was the transition from being the sorcerer’s apprentice to the responsibility of being the sorcerer himself. Their story is intertwined through six decades of Israel’s special operations, carried out both in and out of uniform.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan at INSS conference. 2013.
Moti Milrod

Spring 1971, the Gaza Strip: A fishing boat has capsized along the coast. Its passengers, exhausted and hungry, had made a navigation error en route from Sidon to Port Said. They were Palestinians who had met in Lebanon with the relatives of one of the Shin Bet security service’s most wanted men in Gaza. The locals found them recuperating on the beach and arranged a meeting for them with the wanted man. 

Then the members of the Israeli undercover unit pulled their guns out from under their tattered clothes. They were led by Capt. Meir Dagan, commander of the Rimon reconnaissance unit. The wanted man tried to shoot, but the Israelis were faster. He died.

The operation was carefully planned by Dagan and approved by the chain of command. It had all the hallmarks of the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence and commando units ever since Sharon set up in 1953 Unit 101, which soon merged into a paratroops battalion and became the private strike force of the General Staff headed by Moshe Dayan. Back then, Sharon was the apprentice and Dayan the sorcerer, and one level up, Dayan was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s apprentice.

The IDF had special operations units before 101; undercover Arab units existed even back in the days of the pre-state Palmach militia. What was special about 101 and the paratroopers was Dayan’s centralized control, without the complex apparatus of the regional commands. This enabled high-speed operations, which Sharon knew how to plan but insisted on expanding, and sometimes also deniability. When Ben-Gurion lied – for instance, after the 1953 Qibya operation, when he insisted that no IDF unit had been absent from its base – it was a quarter-truth rather like Bill Clinton’s claim that he didn’t have sex with Monica Lewinsky. 101, is that a unit?

Sharon nurtured an entire generation of paratrooper commanders, including Mordechai Gur and Rafael Eitan, who were his battalion commanders when the paratroopers became a brigade. He used them but didn’t compete with them, and they rebelled against him after the 1956 Sinai Operation and the terrible slaughter at Mitla Pass. While Sharon was shunted aside, into the armored corps and staff positions, Eitan – who, unlike Sharon, wanted all the glory for himself – became the IDF’s premier special ops commander. 
Meanwhile, Dagan was also advancing, and he found himself a patron in Sharon. It happened by chance: When Ezer Weizman leaped from the second-most important post in the General Staff (head of the operations directorate) straight into a cabinet seat in 1969, a round of musical chairs began among the major generals. Yeshayahu Gavish, the head of Southern Command, left the army because he wasn’t appointed as Weizman’s replacement, while Maj. Gen. Israel Tal refused to replace Gavish as head of Southern Command because he disagreed with the army’s strategy for defending Sinai. The beneficiary of both decisions was Sharon, who had originally been slated to head Northern Command but instead became head of Southern Command.

In this capacity, almost 15 years after he and the paratroops had parted ways amid mutual recriminations, Sharon again began utilizing commando units, including Dagan’s Rimon. The acquaintance that began then and was renewed during the Yom Kippur War blossomed years later.

Controversy in south Lebanon

1981, south Lebanon: Those were the days when Prime Minister Menachem Begin was warning Syrian President Hafez Assad to be careful, because the IDF was “waiting” for him. Dagan was already a colonel, commander of the South Lebanon Region. Dagan essentially served as an armed babysitter for pro-Israel Lebanese officers, especially Maj. Saad Haddad, who founded a pro-Israel militia that later became the South Lebanon Army.

This, like his time in Gaza, was good preparation for the complex activity required of the Mossad chief. It involved intelligence, under-the-table ties with Israel’s neighbors and great powers, operations both in-house and outsourced, and contact with senior politicians. 

One officer who served with Dagan was shocked by what he saw. He claimed that on orders from the IDF, under cover of the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, deadly strikes were being carried out against Palestinian targets, and the casualties included innocent civilians. The officer’s anonymous complaint reached the press, and from there – even though the military censor forbade publication – it reached Begin.

Col. Meir Dagan (center), Brig. Gen. Yossi Ben Hanan, Maj. Gen. Haim Nadel and Brig. Gen Amos Yaron, in Lebanon, 1982.
Archive IDF

The complaint named four people who it said were partners in deceiving the government (and Military Intelligence): Eitan, then the IDF chief of staff; Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, the head of Northern Command; his intelligence officer, Shlomo Ilya; and Dagan. The head of Military Intelligence, Yehoshua Saguy, appointed an officer to look into the matter, and the accusations made in the complaint proved true. Begin didn’t want to believe it, especially on the eve of an election.

After the election, Begin was forced to give up the defense portfolio and hand it over to Sharon. The new minister removed Ben-Gal, who was Eitan’s protégé, from his post as head of Northern Command and sent him off to study in the United States. But he didn’t dare touch Eitan, whom Begin adored. And he didn’t want to touch Dagan, by then commander of an armored brigade.

A taste of politics

By the time Sharon and Dagan met again, within the context of Likud politics, they had discovered a common enemy – Ehud Barak, who had once sided with Sharon against Eitan. When Barak became IDF chief of staff in the early 1990s, he decided to fill various key positions with his own people. Dagan had no place in his plans, especially since their joint service on the General Staff under Dan Shomron – with Barak as deputy chief of staff and crown prince and Dagan as the fertile and creative head of the operations brigade – had left plenty of bad feeling between them.  

But then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens forced Barak to fulfill a promise to promote Dagan. He was consequently made a corps commander and assistant to the head of the operations directorate, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who was also the deputy chief of staff. This, Dagan’s first position as a major general, often serves as a stepping-stone to the more important position of head of a regional command. And when Matan Vilnai was appointed deputy to the new chief of staff, Lipkin-Shahak, the path seemed clear for Dagan to become head of Southern Command. 

Dagan, however, was then in hospital recovering from an illness, his back aching and his 50th birthday approaching. He made a few phone calls to IDF attaches around the world, assessed his chances for further promotion and decided that his time had passed; he would do better to pass up the job of head of Southern Command and reenter civilian life.

Meir Dagan (right) with Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin at the Defense Ministry in 1993.
Archive IDF

The demobilized Dagan went on the customary post-army overseas trip but he never quite made it into civilian life. He situated himself in an old Templer building at the Prime Minister’s Office in the government complex in Tel Aviv, used formerly by both Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. Cigar smoke wafted through his room, competing with dirty jokes he told as a cover. He spoke harshly and started walking with a cane.

In the spring of 2001 Dagan helped Sharon in his election campaign against Barak, at the end of which Sharon wondered how three months earlier he had begged Barak to include him in his government whereas now the tables were turned and Barak was doing the imploring. Heading the election campaign headquarters, a blatantly political appointment, almost caused Dagan’s downfall in the autumn of 2002, when Sharon had to choose among three other candidates to head the Mossad. These were Maj. Gen. Shlomo Yanai, deputy Mossad chief Ilan Mizrahi and former senior Mossad official Hagai Hadas. Sharon ended up choosing Dagan. More than a vote of confidence, this was a prize for his loyalty, a lofty characteristic in Sharon’s eyes. This was also a defiant act directed at his critics.

Expanding horizons at the Mossad

As far as one can tell and compare, Dagan’s balance sheet at the Mossad was positive. His resounding failures came during his final year – the Mabhouh assassination, the dead Mossad agent Ben Zygier (Prisoner X) – a year he did not consider necessarily as his final one. If he’d been offered to break former Mossad chief Isser Harel’s record of 13 years as Mossad chief he would not have refused. Within his organization he was a tough tyrant, devouring his deputies. As a diligent disciple of Sharon he never shied away from intrigue.

The Mossad and its chief play in the big leagues in Israel and abroad. Dagan’s horizons expanded from pulling a trigger when facing bitter enemies to shaking hands, not only of friends. His proximity to policy makers, as well as new cyber technology, employing a keyboard instead of laying a minefield, placed him among those defense officials who viewed war only as a last resort. He assumed his post during a Likud government and remained during the terms of two Kadima prime ministers. He left only after ensuring that the re-elected Likud leader would find it very difficult to realize his dream of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Last fall, when his health deteriorated, General Michael Hayden gave an interview for a documentary series called: “The Mossad, blood and silence”, which will be aired by Yes satellite TV next year. Hayden was Dagan’s counterpart, serving as head of the CIA over the last decade. “I have deep respect for all of Israel’s intelligence agencies, particularly the Mossad. I developed close relations with Meir Dagan. As they say at CIA headquarters in Langley, I cleared my desk a lot for Meir, as well as for Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence. I wanted to meet them, whether in Tel Aviv or Washington, in order to learn what they were thinking, since I greatly respected their professionalism. Did we always agree? No, of course not. But even when we didn’t I retraced our conversations, since I respected their positions.”

Hayden is not playing innocent. Among states, intelligence agencies and heads of organizations cooperation has its limits. “There is much overlap in values and interests, but it’s not total, and after all the Mossad is a foreign intelligence service," he says. "This is a movie for adults. This is what mature countries do to each other. Were there things Dagan was not at liberty to disclose? Yes and I’m sure Meir thought the same about me. That didn’t interfere with our cooperation where our interests overlapped.”

Dagan expressed his political legacy on the eve of last year’s elections, in a choked voice. If Dagan had organized that demonstration with the Mossad’s usual meticulousness his words would have had double the reverberations they had, but politics are sloppy and talk about people believing in charms by Yair Garbuz and Netanyahu’s megaphone overpowered Dagan’s hoarse voice.