Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, spoke out last week against ex-military and intelligence officials who are expressing doubts about the efficacy of a preemptive Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear project.
Gantz, testifying in the Knesset, said, "There is a lot of chatter and conversation regarding Iran. Very few people know what is real and what is not, or what can be and what cannot be." Gantz named no names, but his targets were quite obviously three men: his predecessor as chief of staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi; the former head of the Shabak, Israel's internal security service, Yuval Diskin; and Meir Dagan, the recently retired chief of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.
It is Dagan who has taken the lead in criticizing his former boss, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defense minister, Ehud Barak, for contemplating a preemptive aerial strike. Dagan came out of the gate early and strong, stating, in early 2011, shortly after his retirement (a retirement that was forced by Netanyahu), that attacking Iran is a "stupid idea." He has not let up since.
For those of us who have asked, on occasion, whether Netanyahu and Barak are actually preparing to strike Iran or are simply trying to bluff the international community, Dagan's harsh, and repeated, statements about the plans of the current government need to be taken seriously: Dagan believes firmly that Bibi and Barak are not bluffing. Which is why he is so agitated.
Earlier this month, I accompanied David Bradley, the chairman and owner of the Atlantic Media Company, on a visit to Dagan's Tel Aviv apartment in order to discuss the Iran issue. (David and I spent much of our time in Israel interviewing senior officials on this issue, though in Jerusalem as well as in Amman and Ramallah, we also talked about the stalled peace process - but more on that later).
When David and I walked into the lobby of Dagan's very modern apartment building, we noticed a couple of suspicious looking young men loitering near the elevator. One of them approached us and said, simply, "He's waiting," and then put us on the elevator. Dagan answered his own door, greeting us in a kind of gruff, matter-of-fact manner - he is, at 67, rotund, but there is a hardness to him that is easily discernible. Before joining the Mossad, he was one of Ariel Sharon's favorite generals, and he made his career in the Israel Defense Forces as a renowned hunter of terrorists. He is said to have devised some of the most effective anti-terror raids Israel has ever conducted.
We sat in his living room, which is decorated with his own paintings; like Peter Zvi Malkin, the legendary Mossad agent who seized Eichmann in Argentina, Dagan is a painter, but a painter of simple, almost pastoral scenes. One painting over his shoulder caught my eye - an old man sitting in an obviously eastern market. I asked him what inspired the painting. "It's an old man I once saw in Tabriz," he said. Tabriz, of course, is in Iran.
His paintings may be naïve, but Dagan himself is not. When he says he doesn't believe Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing, I tend to believe him. It seems unlikely that a man like Dagan is easily tricked. At one point, we asked him if he believed there was even a small chance that he was the target of a deception campaign run by the prime minister and defense minister. After all, Dagan's criticisms of what he sees as Netanyahu's recklessness have quite efficiently buttressed fears in Iran, and across the world, that Israel may launch a precipitous strike. Dagan's public criticisms of Netanyahu and Barak have been quite useful to the Israeli government, which needs its threats to be understood as credible, both in Tehran and in Washington. Dagan, however, dismissed this notion out of hand. "They are very serious," he said, referring to Netanyahu and Barak. "I'm taking the threat of an Israeli attack very seriously." He added, with a measure of disgust, and incredulity, in his voice, "If the prime minister and defense minister are creating a deception campaign against the intelligence apparatus then they don't deserve their jobs."
It is highly unlikely that Dagan would fall victim to such a deception campaign (which would, of course, be difficult for Netanyahu and Barak to execute over time, especially inside the Israeli intelligence system). What is only slightly more likely is that Dagan himself is part of the deception campaign, playing the role of the rogue ex-intelligence chief in order to advance his government's goal of concentrating the world's attention on the Iranian problem. My understanding is that some Iranian officials believe this to be the case, but it is a) impossible to prove, and b) fairly implausible, even for the Middle East.