Meir Dagan passed away on March 17, at the age of 71. The Forward’s editor at large, JJ Goldberg, briefly details his life in this column: “How Meir Dagan, Israel’s Legendary Spymaster, Became Bibi’s Worst Nightmare.” After outlining his career as a highly effective combat soldier and then as a key security adviser and official for four prime ministers, Goldberg explains how Dagan helped thwart Netanyahu’s intention to attack Iran in 2009 or 2010, and after retirement from the Mossad, to openly advocate a two-state solution with the Palestinians. These are selected passages:
. . . 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. [And] when Netanyahu convened the cabinet and the three chiefs were summoned to brief the ministers on the military option, a majority were convinced [to] vote against the prime minister’s plan.
The events … 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.
. . . 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.”
. . . 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. . . .
In March 2015, on the eve of the parliamentary elections that would return Netanyahu to office for a fourth term, Dagan … 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…” . . .