Searching for a Mossad Chief in the Shadow of a New Nuclear Threat

The prime minister is mum about who will take over the spy agency, but whoever it is, North Korea will have to be on their mind.

On Thursday, or at the latest, early next week, the prime minister will announce his pick for the top post at the Mossad. It's possible that Netanyahu decided to move up the timing of this announcement because of media pressure, specifically a lead story published this week in Yedioth Ahronot depicting him as a wishy-washy and indecisive leader. But the truth is that, as this story shows, the media are less powerful and resourceful than is commonly thought.

North Korea nuclear Reuters

Members of the press have been groping in the dark for bits of information. Nobody knows who will replace Meir Dagan, the current Mossad chief, and before Netanyahu let it be known that the announcement was imminent, nobody had any idea when it would be made.

The rumor mill has been at full tilt for several months. The names of possible candidates have come and gone.

This week Amos Yadlin left his post as head of Military Intelligence, after five years on the job, and his name has come up in media reports as one of the candidates for the top Mossad post.

Yadlin, it appears, has left his IDF intelligence position without knowing whether he is in the running for the Mossad job. Because of an absence of information, journalists (including this writer ) are forced to regurgitate a list of likely candidates that includes: the current head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin, "T," who has served twice as deputy head of the Mossad, and perhaps also Hagi Hadas, who was No. 3 at the Mossad during Dagan's tenure and today serves as the prime minister's envoy for negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit.

The possibility that Netanyahu will bypass this short list and promote some other figure from within the Mossad ranks, or an outsider whose name has not surfaced in this context, cannot be ruled out either.

It's to Netanyahu's credit that the press is groping in the dark for information.

The prime minister will make this decision on his own. Netanyahu is withholding information not only from the press, but even from members of his closed circle of advisers.

Dagan is about to leave his post after more than eight years on the job. The first part of his term was mired in controversy and marred by tense office politics, policy upheavals and the departure of top Mossad officials who could not adjust to his management style.

But after about two years on the job, Dagan learned some lessons and began listening to his associates. Senior Mossad officials persuaded him to scrap some ambitious operational plans that were likely to have ended in major catastrophes.

The moment he found his equilibrium, Dagan flourished in his role. Most importantly, he restored the Mossad's prestige and enhanced its power of deterrence.

Deserving of credit

Several events of strategic import for Israeli security, for which the Mossad and the intelligence community deserves credit, according to foreign sources, happened on his watch.

It was the Mossad, for example, which supplied precise information about Hezbollah's arsenal of long-range missiles, enabling Israel's air force to destroy the missiles in 34 minutes during the Second Lebanon War. It was in 2008, while he was chief, that Hezbollah's "defense minister," Imad Mughniya was knocked off in Damascus. Hezbollah has since been struggling to find a replacement for Mughniya.

And, criticism leveled by reporters and commentators notwithstanding, the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai attributed to Israel was not a failure.

True, Israel's relations with Australia, Britain and Ireland sustained some short-term damage as a result, but Hamas hasn't been able to to find someone to replace al-Mabhouh, both as chief of logistics and as liaison with the ultra-secretive al-Quds force, Iran's Revolutionary Guards. It was also the Mossad, according to foreign sources, that helped obtain information used by the air force when it attacked a convoy trying to smuggle arms to Hamas.

Beyond anything else, though, Dagan's term will be remembered as a time when the Mossad was systematically able to hamper Iran's nuclear efforts, even though the ultimate objective of putting an end to Iran's nuclear ambitions has yet to be fulfilled.

In this context, there couldn't have been better timing for the changing of the guard at the Mossad. With Dagan's replacement about to be named, Iran's nuclear program has suffered a major setback:

In an unprecedented development, uranium enrichment activities at the Natanz plant have been suspended because of malfunctions and damage to the centrifuges.

Whether this was really caused by a computer virus, by faulty equipment sold to Iran by certain organizations, or by a lack of technological virtuosity on the part of Iranian nuclear experts, the widely held assumption is that the Mossad, under Dagan's tutelage, had something to do with it.

Notwithstanding the successes it's notched up, what happened this week far away from Mossad headquarters is cause for concern.Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear weapons specialist at Stanford University, was invited to visit a North Korean uranium enrichment site and was amazed at what he found.

Within one year, he found, the North Koreans have managed to build a sophisticated facility for uranium enrichment. Advanced P-2 centrifuges, the model that Iran has had difficulty producing, operate at this site.

What guarantee is there that North Korea, which in the past supplied a nuclear reactor to Syria (which was later destroyed by the Israeli air force ) will not supply centrifuges to Teheran?

The lesson from North Korea is clear: When a country is determined to develop nuclear weapons, it will find a way to do so despite international pressure and sanctions and despite a successful Mossad chief.