Meir Dagan, Israel’s top spy during much of the most important intelligence-gathering on Iran’s nuclear program, was buried on Sunday; he died last Thursday after a four-year battle with liver cancer.
“All of your acts were tied to the Israeli people and its fate,” said Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin at the funeral, held in the Galilee town of Rosh Pina.
Dagan headed the Mossad, Israel’s covert intelligence agency, from 2002 until 2011, and had unprecedented powers and resources to investigate, and try to set back, Iran’s nuclear exploits. This was his final appointment of a long security career, which included stints as a top government security adviser and more than three decades in the Israel Defense Forces.
The current Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, said at the funeral that Dagan, who was 71, was among Israel’s “greatest warriors” and paid tribute to his daring which, he said, left a deep mark on his organization.
Dagan’s heroics began during his army days, and included an incident in the early 1970s when a terrorist was about to attack his unit with a hand grenade. Dagan pounced on him and stopped him from pulling the pin. For this, he won the Medal of Courage.
Dagan’s unit at the time was a new entity called Sayeret Rimon, and he was put in charge of it by Ariel Sharon, who was then head of the army’s southern command. The objective was to stamp out terror in Gaza, which it did with surprising effect. “The commandos used disguise and cunning to infiltrate every corner of the terrorists’ world,” wrote military historian Samuel M. Katz in his book on Israeli counterterrorism.
“They ate in the restaurants where guerrilla commanders held court; they shopped in markets controlled by the various terrorist groups. Dagan’s commandos assembled highly detailed and far-reaching dossiers on the men and women they hunted.”
When the same man who appointed him to Sayeret Rimon appointed him, in 2002, to head the Mossad, it was an unpopular choice in the organization. Despite the confidence that he inspired in Sharon, who was by this point prime minister, Dagan was an outsider, not one who had risen through the Mossad’s ranks, and was viewed by its staff with some skepticism and suspicion. He clashed with several longtime Mossad employees, and when he did he could be ruthless, sidelining them.
Yet as he made his mark on the Mossad, it was hard for anyone to say that it wasn’t a positive one. People familiar with internal operations say that he reinvigorated it and made numerous changes that made it run more smoothly and effectively. Much of the intelligence that Israel has today on the Iranian nuclear threat comes from the Dagan era, during which it became the agency’s No. 1 priority. The fight against Israel’s longstanding terrorist foes also continued.
Foreign media attributed several assassinations of Palestinian or pro-Palestinian terror targets to the Mossad during Dagan’s tenure. All attracted rebuke from international voices that objected to targeted killings; one such killing generated further controversy.
In 2010, a top Hamas military man, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, died in a Dubai hotel. It turned out that cloned passports had been used by his killers, who were believed internationally to have been Mossad agents. This angered the countries that issued the passports, especially Britain, which had a diplomat removed from Israel’s London embassy as a punitive measure.
When it came to the Iran work that Dagan oversaw, almost all of the details remained top secret, though the general assessment of the seriousness of the threat filtered down to politics and to public discussion.
Upon Dagan’s retirement in 2011, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went to great lengths to try to kill the Iran nuclear deal, faced a strange situation: the Knesset opposition was hardly active in challenging his position on Iran, but the man who had the most detailed knowledge of the threat suddenly became his most vocal public opponent on the issue. He used blunt language, even calling the idea of a strike on Iranian nuclear reactors “stupid.” Reports suggested that, together with then-director of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Yuval Diskin, and then-military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, he had refused an order from Netanyahu to put everything in place for a possible Iran strike back in 2010.
Dagan’s diagnosis of liver cancer, in 2012, made him more determined to leave his mark on the way that Israelis think, and this one-time Likud election coordinator spoke not only of what he saw as the need to exercise restraint and caution regarding Iran, but also the need to reach a compromise with the Palestinians.
I found myself wondering this week how many more figures like Dagan Israel will produce — security chiefs who retire as heroes and then risk marginalizing themselves by speaking the truth as they see it, even if it isn’t a popular message. In an Israel where public life is increasingly choreographed by image consultants and pollsters, Dagan just jumped in and spoke his mind.
As the burial was taking place, I talked to Eli Beer, founder of the volunteer medical organization United Hatzalah. For the last two years Dagan — who was already suffering from liver cancer — sat on its board. Beer told me that Dagan was excited to get involved, and particularly driven by the fact that while the organization was established by charedim, it now brings together Jews of all religious stripes, as well as Arabs. Keen to carry on contributing to its life-saving work even when Dagan was very sick and couldn’t leave his house, he hosted board meetings so he could attend.
Dagan’s life started with tragedy. He was born to parents who were fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust, and this drove him in everything that he did — he kept a picture of his grandfather, Ber Erlich Sloshny, kneeling before Nazis just before being murdered in Poland in 1942. His life was dominated by battles — by actual battles and by the ongoing battle to secure the State of Israel. And at its end, even as his health prospects were grim, his life also became about promoting healing. A fitting biography for a Jewish warrior.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.