Like many prominent figures, Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief who died on Thursday morning at 71, will be remembered mainly for his final acts in public life, which will obscure earlier and more controversial chapters.
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In the last five years, following his retirement from service, Dagan emerged as one of the bitterest critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what he perceived as a destructive stagnation in Israel’s positions. If his deteriorating health hadn’t limited him, he might have begun a new political chapter as a leader of opposition.
In his four decades in the military and espionage world, Dagan was one of the leading proponents and practitioners of the use of force, often in the dirtiest and most devious methods, in furthering Israel’s interests at all levels and arenas. It was as if the brutal circumstances of his birth, in a freezing train in January 1945, to Polish parents who had fled the Germans, dictated his beliefs and actions.
As a young paratrooper officer, he was chosen at the age of 25 by the then-commander of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, to lead a commando unit that would battle Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip. The Rimon Unit was a small and secret group of fighters, operating on the ground to locate and eliminate terrorists. For decades, Rimon’s operations remained secret, and to this day the details of the extrajudicial killings carried out by Dagan’s men, with the authorization of the army’s high command, are highly controversial.
In 1980, he was appointed the head of the Liaison Unit in Lebanon, charged with coordinating Israeli military operations in the south of the country, where another dirty war was taking place between Palestinian organizations and Lebanese militias. He was to spend much of the next decade directing operations in Lebanon, blending military tactics with agent-running.
During that period, his relationship with the architect of the first Lebanon war, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was cemented. It was another clandestine chapter in Dagan’s life, and little is known of his dealings in that traumatic period in which he was “our expert on Lebanon,” as Ehud Barak said of him on Thursday.
He was eventually promoted to the General Staff, but the blunt-spoken Dagan was less popular in the upper echelons of the Oslo-period IDF, which was more focused on pulling back from parts of Gaza and the West Bank and cooperating with old enemies. His experience was still prized, however, and shortly after retiring from military service he was recalled by Prime Minister Shimon Peres to join and then direct the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, followed by a short return to uniform as the IDF’s Operations Directorate commander.
He experienced a brief period in politics at the side of his old commander, Sharon, as the Likud’s election-day organizer in 2001. A year later, Sharon appointed him Mossad chief, where he replaced Ephraim Halevy.
For years, Israel’s fabled spy organization had been criticized for focusing too much on secret diplomacy while allowing the operational side to languish. Dagan put the Mossad's secret warriors back on a war footing, with Iran and its regional proxies as their target. The next years would be filled with reports of mysterious deaths and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, Syrian generals and Hezbollah operatives. Israel never took responsibility for any of these, but they were widely ascribed to Dagan, who was titled by an Egyptian newspaper as a “superman.”
Appointed as an outsider, Dagan managed to ruffle feathers among Mossad ranks, but also to win over many admirers for his combination of combativeness, experience and wide-ranging knowledge. They spoke in awe of how the chief, who was trying to kick his decades-long addiction to pipe-smoking, played with a large hunting-knife in meetings.
The price of the Mossad's rapid expansion, beyond regional and international repercussions, was erosion in operational security, as came to light in the exposure of the Mossad’s use of foreign passports in the 2010 assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. This was followed by the “Prisoner X” scandal in which Ben Zygier, an Australian immigrant to Israel who had been recruited by the Mossad in controversial circumstances and was then accused of serious security offenses, committed suicide in Ayalon Prison.
But any criticism of overreach during Dagan’s eight-year term as Mossad chief was overshadowed by the debate over a military strike on Iran.
Sharon’s man was viewed with a mixture of fear and suspicion by Netanyahu, who twice –reluctantly – extended Dagan’s term. Dagan believed, like Sharon, that the best policy toward Iran was one of quiet diplomacy and clandestine activity. He opposed Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the subject and was part of the group of security chiefs who blocked the order to put the IDF on a special alert in advance of a possible attack on Iran.
Unlike former Mossad chiefs who kept their views to themselves upon retirement, when Dagan left the agency in 2011 he made no effort to hide his opinion that Israel should bomb Iran’s nuclear installations “only when the knife is on Israel’s neck and is beginning to cut.” It was a reversal of Dagan’s old beliefs, which some explained as a change of perspective while others claimed that with Sharon’s departure, Dagan no longer had faith in Israel’s leaders to guide the country in war.
Dagan wanted to find a way to join the political scene, though he had no appetite for party politics and his health was faltering. The liver transplant he underwent in Belarus, following the personal intervention of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, had all the hallmarks of the previous chapters in his biography. It bought him some three more years, but failed to rehabilitate his health.
In March 2015, ahead of a rally in Tel Aviv in which he was to be the main speaker, he said, “I’ve got to take care of my health so I can continue to speak out.” It was to be his last public appearance. “I am worried by our leadership, this is the biggest crisis of leadership in the state’s history,” he said. “For six consecutive years, Benjamin Netanyahu is serving as prime minister. Six years in which Israel has been stuck as never before. Six years in which he hasn't led one real move to change the face of the region or create a better future.”
Ultimately, Dagan will be remembered more for being one of the central players who blocked a possible war with Iran and its allies and the man who warned of Israel’s direction, than for his long career fighting Israel’s most secret and dirty wars.