Israel lost a living legend this week with the death March 17 of former spymaster Meir Dagan. He was 71. A career soldier, he retired in 1995 at age 50 with the rank of major general, then began a second career as the country’s top counter-terrorism strategist, serving under four prime ministers as counter-terrorism adviser, national security adviser and finally director of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.
Lastly, after finally retiring from government service in 2011, Dagan suddenly took on a whole new public persona as Israel’s most outspoken gadfly, chief opponent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran policies and passionate advocate of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Dagan occupied a space in Israel’s imagination that was something like Yitzhak Rabin’s, as a legendary warrior who became in his last years an equally fierce fighter for peace. They were far from identical: Where the shy, withdrawn Rabin won his fame as a field commander, army chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister, the witty, gregarious Dagan’s legend came from his feats of physical bravery and his expertise in undercover operations.
Yet both managed throughout their careers to win fierce loyalty from their troops and adulation from the Israeli public before finally shocking the world and infuriating the Israeli right wing by seemingly reversing course and advocating diplomacy instead of war.
Dagan was born Meir Huberman in Siberia in January 1945 to Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors fleeing eastward from the Nazis. For years he kept a photo on his office wall of his maternal grandfather, Ber Erlich Sloshny, kneeling before Nazi soldiers moments before they shot him dead in 1942.
Dagan was brought to Israel in 1950 and raised in the working-class Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where his parents ran a laundry. Drafted to the army in 1963, he was tapped in 1970 by Ariel Sharon, then chief of Southern Command, to assemble an undercover commando unit, Sayeret Rimon, to eliminate terrorist cells in newly occupied Gaza. The unit’s operations were one part of Sharon’s larger iron-fist strategy for combating Gaza terrorism.
The deadly campaign alarmed the army’s General Staff and contributed to Sharon’s already growing notoriety for brutality. It caused Sharon to be cashiered and ended an illustrious but controversial military career (though he later served with renown as a reserve officer in the 1973 Yom Kippur War). But for Dagan, Sharon’s young protégé, it was the beginning of his lifelong reputation for derring-do. In one Gaza incident, Dagan tackled a Palestinian preparing to throw a grenade and subdued him before the grenade could go off. That won Dagan a medal of valor.
Over the next quarter-century Dagan held a series of command positions. He saw combat in the Yom Kippur and First Lebanon wars, commanding the first units crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 and entering Beirut in 1982. He spearheaded the creation of the pro-Israel Christian militia known as the South Lebanon Army and held several senior posts at General Staff headquarters.
Dagan’s retirement from the army in 1995 was short-lived. In 1996, following the Rabin assassination, he was tapped by incoming Prime Minister Shimon Peres to serve as deputy director and then director of his counter-terrorism staff, continuing in the post after Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister later that year. In the 2001 prime ministerial election he led Ariel Sharon’s campaign staff, and then signed on as Sharon’s national security adviser. The following year, 2002, Sharon named him director of the Mossad. The agency was demoralized at the time, having suffered several embarrassing fumbles during the first Netanyahu term in the late 1990s. Sharon reputedly instructed Dagan to turn it once again into an outfit “with a knife between its teeth.”
Dagan did just that. Over the next eight-and-a-half years the Mossad played a central role in slowing Iran’s nuclear project and improving clandestine security ties with ostensibly hostile Arab states. Among its known operations, it is believed to have assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists. In cooperation with American intelligence, it developed and tested the Stuxnet computer virus that destroyed about one-fifth of the uranium centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. Dagan’s Mossad allegedly also gathered the intelligence leading to the 2007 air strike on Syria’s plutonium nuclear reactor, then under construction with North Korean assistance, by breaking into the laptop computer of an Iranian negotiating in Vienna.
Dagan later told an interviewer that heading the Mossad was a bit like running a Chevra Kadisha, a traditional Jewish burial society. “You provide an essential service for people who will never know what you did for them,” he said.
One risky Mossad operation during this period turned into a fiasco: the assassination of Hamas arms purchaser Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The assassination took place in January 2010 in a hotel room in Dubai, but the operation was captured on hotel security cameras. The hit squad’s 26 members were identified as Mossad agents in amateurish disguises, and their pictures were published around the world. Dubai obtained Interpol arrest warrants and the agents were forced to go aground in Israel. The incident also caused a diplomatic crisis between Israel and several friendly countries whose passports the agents had used, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. The Mossad had allegedly appropriated the passports from dual citizens living in Israel. Israel got an international black eye, but Dagan’s reputation remained intact.
Dagan’s most explosive conflict, though, was with his own boss, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Beginning shortly after his election in 2009, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, ordered a series of actions by the military and the Mossad to prepare for a possible air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. At a critical moment, though, Dagan, together with the military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the director of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Yuval Diskin, refused.
Their reasons for refusing were essentially twofold. Initially, Netanyahu had instructed Ashkenazi to call up reserves and mobilize troops as a show of force. Ashkenazi, together with the other two security chiefs, responded that the order was illegal. They said it would inevitably prompt an Iranian preemptive strike and was thus tantamount to initiating a war — and going to war required a cabinet vote. But when Netanyahu convened the cabinet and the three chiefs were summoned to brief the ministers on the military option, a majority were convinced vote against the prime minister’s plan.
The events — which played out in a series of meetings over the course of more than a year and not in a single incident as often portrayed, Dagan told me — caused a deep rift between Netanyahu and the three security chiefs. During the first six months of 2011 all three were unceremoniously replaced. Dagan was the first to go, retiring in January 2011 after being refused an extension of his term. Ashkenazi went in February, likewise refused an expected extension. Diskin was replaced in June.
At the heart of the chiefs’ opposition to the strike, as explained to me by Netanyahu national security adviser Uzi Arad — who was let go in August 2011 — was an analysis that an Israeli raid would backfire. It would set the Iranians back only 18 months or so before they rebuilt. Moreover, they would then be able to rebuild more openly than ever, claiming that they had been attacked by the Middle East’s only nuclear power and now had a legitimate need for a nuclear defense. A military option would be ineffective unless it were carried out by an international coalition led by the United States and followed up with a long-term, intrusive inspection regime of the sort imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
Even though they were convinced the operation would backfire and strengthen Iran’s position, though, “if the [initial] order had been legal we would have obeyed,” he later told interviewers.
Within days after leaving office, Dagan began voicing his views on Netanyahu’s Iran policy in a series of closed forums — before a Knesset committee, at an academic gathering — that quickly leaked out. Among other things, he was quoted as saying that an Israeli attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea I ever heard.”
By the fall he was speaking out publicly. In September 2012 he went international, sharing his views on Iran and Netanyahu in an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
Weeks after the “60 Minutes” interview Dagan disappeared from the public eye. He was undergoing a liver transplant in Belarus. He had been diagnosed with the liver cancer that would eventually kill him, but was turned down for a transplant in Israel because of his age. By 2013, though, he was back in action, emerging as the leading Israeli critic of Netanyahu’s Iran strategy and feud with the Obama administration.
In 2014 Dagan broadened his attack, taking on Netanyahu’s failure to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians. That fall, following the 50-day Gaza war known as Operation Protective Edge, he signed on with the group of nearly 200 retired generals demanding that Israel push for a regional Israeli-Arab peace conference based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. For him, the arguments for retaining control of the West Bank, with its 2.8 million permanently stateless and deeply hostile Palestinians, were essentially a cover for land-lust. Even control of the Jordan River, often presented as Israel’s bottom-line security requirement, was simply “an excuse to hold onto the settlements,” he once told me, his eyes blazing.
In March 2015, on the eve of the parliamentary elections that would return Netanyahu to office for a fourth term, Dagan — again echoing Rabin — appeared as the keynote speaker at a massive anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. He delivered what was widely described as the “speech of his life.”
“Israel is a state surrounded by enemies,” he told the crowd of 50,000. “Enemies don’t frighten me. I’m afraid of our leadership. I’m afraid of a lack of vision, of losing our way, of loss of determination, of loss of personal example. I’m afraid of indecision and deadlock. Above all I’m afraid of our crisis of leadership, which is the worst I can remember since the founding of the state…”
“I don’t want a binational state.,” Dagan said. “I don’t want an apartheid state. I don’t want to rule over three million Arabs. I don’t want us to remain hostages to fear, despair and inaction.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).