Leslie Stahl’s “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (transcript) gave important exposure to his views on the folly of attacking Iran. However, she got two things very wrong, both of which weakened the strength of his case against a military strike. The bottom line is, she let you think Dagan is a lone voice. In fact, it’s Bibi Netanyahu who’s nearly alone on this. The trouble is, Bibi’s the one who gets to make the decision. That’s why Dagan and nearly every other military or intelligence chief is speaking out against him: They’re scared of him.
Stahl suggested as though it were credible that Dagan was pushed out of the Mossad, supposedly because of the messy assassination of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010 — and hence that his campaign against the Netanyahu-Barak war talk is a petty act of revenge. In fact, Dagan was supposed to retire in late 2009 at the mandatory age of 65, but Netanyahu asked him to stay on for another year and he ended up retiring on schedule in January 2011.
More seriously misleading is her assertion early on that it’s “unheard of for someone who held such a high-classified position to speak out publicly.” That makes it sound like he’s a lone voice in the wilderness. In fact, as I’ve written before, Dagan’s views have been publicly echoed by every single ex-Mossad or Israel Defense Forces chief going back to 1996, with the single exception of super-hawk (and Netanyahu ally) Moshe Yaalon. Now, that is unheard of.
Even more astonishing, the current heads of the IDF and Mossad, Benny Gantz and Tamir Pardo, have now gone public resisting Netanyahu’s war push. Even Dagan didn’t dare to do that. That’s beyond unheard-of.
Here’s the roll-call:
Dagan has been seconded by his two immediate predecessors as Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy (here), appointed by Netanyahu himself in 1998, and Danny Yatom (here), appointed by Shimon Peres in 1996). Ditto former military chiefs of staff Shaul Mofaz (served 1998-2002) and Dan Halutz (2005-07) (both Iranian-born) as well as Amnon Lipkin Shahak (1995-98). All have stated publicly in the last few months that a nuclear Iran is not extreme “existential threat” Netanyahu and Barak claim. As for the immediate past IDF chief, Gabi Ashkenazi (2007-11), his fierce opposition to a military strike is constantly in the news though he hasn’t stated it publicly.
The actions of Gantz and Pardo are particularly intriguing in light of Dagan’s comments last year about the behind-the-scenes role he and Ashkenazi played, together with then-Shin Bet domestic security chief Yuval Diskin, in restraining Netanyahu’s and Barak’s “adventurism.” Dagan said he was afraid that with all three replaced in a sweep (in itself a troubling phenomenon), their successors wouldn’t have the authority or cojones to keep the trigger-happy duo out of trouble. But the soft-spoken Pardo warned a conference of Israeli diplomats in December against the “too-free” talk of Iran being an “existential threat,” and he wasn’t thinking of Sartre or Camus. Iran, he said, is “not necessarily an existential threat.” The idea that it is such a threat, of course, is Netanyahu’s main justification for a military strike.
As for Gantz, he fought furiously and successfully against Barak’s plan last month to appoint Iran hawk Yohanan Locker as air force chief, instead installing Iran-attack skeptic Amir Eshel.
War hawks who follow this stuff are trying to suggest that Israel faces some sort of military putsch against its elected leadership. In fact, none of these former or current security chiefs is trying to take over the government. What they’re doing is stating their opinions, period. It’s unusual for the whole defense establishment to speak out in unison, particularly in opposition to a government position, but it’s not undemocratic. It’s an opinion, albeit from people unusually qualified to speak on the topic. The public can take or leave it as they please.
The point is, as Lipkin-Shahak told the British newspaper The Independent last month, Israel’s military and intelligence leadership is almost unanimously opposed to an attack on Iran, at least for now and in the foreseeable future, because the dangers it poses outweigh the possible threat of a nuclearized Iran. The public ought to know that. Moreover, just last week Lipkin-Shahak told reporter Larry Derfner that, much like Dagan, he considers Netanyahu “a danger.” The unprecedented wave of public statements—and that’s all they are, statements—shows just how widespread this view of Netanyahu is among the people who’ve spent their careers leading Israel’s struggle to survive.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).