Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Saluting Meir Dagan

by P. David Hornik

Last week Meir Dagan stepped down after heading Israel’s Mossad since 2002. He turned the reins over to Tamir Pardo, who was Dagan’s deputy for two stints and is seen as ensuring continuity with his tough, results-oriented approach.

Dagan’s parting words on Thursday to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee can only be seen as encouraging. Yossi Melman, a writer on intelligence issues for the Israeli daily Haaretz, reports that Dagan said

Iran was still far from being capable of producing nuclear weapons and that a series of malfunctions had put off its nuclear goal for several years. Therefore, he said, Iran will not get hold of the bomb before 2015 approximately.

That forecast is especially heartening considering earlier Israeli assessments. As Melman notes,

In 2003, Israeli intelligence officials thought Iran would have its first bomb by 2007. In 2007, they thought it would be 2009, and a year later they put it at 2011. Now the date has moved to 2015. These adjustments were not the result of mistaken evaluations, but due to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, largely because of the Mossad’s efforts.

And considering that, before 2002, the Mossad had registered some failures—particularly the botched 1996 attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Amman—and lost its once formidable, legendary status, the restoration of that status is the work of Meir Dagan.

On the day Dagan took over the Mossad, according to the Jerusalem Post’s editorial on his legacy, he “hung a photo on the wall of his office …of an elderly bearded Jew draped in a prayer shawl kneeling down in front of two Nazi soldiers with fists in the air.”

Dagan would tell visitors to “Look at this picture. This man, kneeling down before the Nazis, was my grandfather just before he was murdered. I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again.”

As Ronen Bergman, another Israeli writer specializing in security and author of The Secret War with Iran, put it in a 2009 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The results have been tremendous.”

Bergman’s piece credits Dagan’s improved Mossad, in tandem with Israel’s military and domestic intelligence, with making possible a series of blows to Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts—and to its allies.

Just some of the latter were: the Israeli air force’s almost total destruction of Hezbollah’s long-range rockets in 2006; its destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007; the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh; and the air force’s massive blow to Hamas in December that year.

Yet Bergman, at the time of his 2009 op-ed, remained pessimistic. “These are all excellent achievements,” he wrote, “but did they change reality?” He answered “Mostly not,” and went on to say that “the heads of Israeli intelligence are now losing sleep over recent information showing that attempts to delay the Iranian nuclear project have failed.”

But that was before some further blows to that project in which the Mossad may have had a hand, including the assassination in November of nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari in Tehran—and most significantly, of course, the Stuxnet worm, which many see as an Israeli brainchild and may well have been one of the “malfunctions” Dagan mentioned to the Knesset committee.

If, to the story of Meir Dagan as Mossad chief, one adds Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, then Israel emerges dramatically as the opposite of what many claim it to be: a major, even indispensable, force for stability in the Middle East and beyond.

If you doubt it, think of the implications for regional and global stability of nuclear bombs in the hands of the likes of the Saddam, Assad, and Ahmadinejad regimes.

Those intent on denigrating Israel will say, of course, it was its presence—and misdeeds—that sparked those nuclearization drives in the first place. Which is patently false, since all three of those regimes, while indeed radically hostile toward Israel, have had broader ambitions and preyed on smaller, fellow Arab or Muslim countries (such as Kuwait in Iraq’s case, Lebanon in Syria’s case, Lebanon and the Gulf states in Iran’s case, etc.).

Meir Dagan’s legacy, then, is an extension of the best in the Israeli stabilizing tradition: the prevention of catastrophe and the enabling of civilization to endure.

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P. David Hornik

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