'Dagan Thinks That Barak Is Crazy Enough to Strike Iran'

The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan's decision to speak out forcefully and publicly against the idea of striking Iran's nuclear facilities from the air was prompted by his fear that the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and to a lesser extent, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are still considering taking precipitous action against Iran, three Israeli sources told me over the weekend. Dagan, as you can read here, called the notion of an Israeli preemptive strike "foolish," saying that it would accrue no benefits to Israel. This brought him some pushback, especially from Barak. According to The Jerusalem Post, Barak said "that all of the country's security and defense organizations - the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) - were tasked with building up capabilities and submitting recommendations to political leaders, who are charged with making the final decision. 'In the end, these are decisions that belong to the political echelon,' he said."

As I reported in an Atlantic cover story last year, it would ultimately be Netanyahu's decision to order a strike, but it would be somewhat difficult for Netanyahu to order an attack without the acquiescence of what is known in Jerusalem as The Seven, the members of the inner cabinet. And it would near-impossible for him to order a strike without the approval of Barak. For a while, I had been under the impression that Netanyahu was the key figure keeping alive the idea of a strike against Iran, but it seems as if Barak is even more gung-ho about the possibility of using the military option.

Dagan, it is widely-believed, is embittered by Netanyahu's decision not to extend his term as chief of the Mossad, but his motivation in the matter of Iran is said to be to counter Barak's influence. "Dagan thinks that Barak is crazy enough to strike Iran," one official told me. The official said that Dagan was spooked earlier this year by something Barak said to a group of senior security officials. "I don't know the wording exactly, but Barak was communicating the idea to them that if the Americans fail to stop Iran, Israel could handle the problem quickly and efficiently. Dagan's view is that the international fallout for an Israeli strike would be intense. He also thinks that the Air Force couldn't reach all of Iran's facilities in any case."

I asked several other Israelis with knowledge of the internal security-apparatus dynamic what they thought of the Dagan-Barak contretemps. One person noted: "It doesn't matter that much. Barak is the one with power. Dagan is an ex-Mossad chief, and even when he was in the Mossad, he didn't control this decision."

Another former security chief disagreed, saying, "Dagan makes Bibi and Barak's lives difficult. He has credibility on the Iran issue because he's spent so much time killing Iranian scientists."

One aspect of this that especially interests me is the matter of Dagan's timing. A couple of people I spoke to said that Dagan is worried that Barak would like to put a potential strike on the table sooner rather than later, and this is what prompted Dagan's rhetorical intervention. But one observer I exchanged e-mails with said: "I believe he simply used the opportunity to open his mouth and speak boldly about his true feelings re Israel-Iran, after years of forced silence. It followed Bibi's Holocaust Day speech ("never again" re Iran) and Barak's calming statement in an interview: "Iran will not drop a bomb," he said, somewhat qualified. I'm not aware of an imminent decision he was trying to block, but what do I know?"

Barak, from time to time, softens his rhetoric on Iran, mainly to calm the Israeli public. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seldom calms the rhetoric. On Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) last week, both he and Israeli President Shimon Peres were explicit about the threat posed by Iran:

Netanyahu concluded his speech with a last lesson: "We can't leave our fate in the hands of others."

He said, "If we don't defend ourselves, the world won't stand by our side. It is appropriate to declare here, today, and now to all of our enemies that they should know one thing: When the people of Israel and the army of Israel say to the world 'never again', we mean every word."

Another Israel, a former official, wrote me this when I asked him to explain Dagan's motivations: "You can imagine that he twice poured a ton of ice on their heads not because he suspects but because of what he's heard them say and because of how he interprets their mode of thought."

I asked Alon Pinkas, a former diplomat and military correspondent, what he thought of Dagan's speech. He said: "Dagan believes that high-technology-based covert operations are far more effective and carry significantly less risk in terms of possible ramifications and consequences than an air strike." He went on, "He is also genuinely warning against what he thinks would be a reckless military action underlined more by political expediency than by a cost-effective analysis."

To be continued, undoubtedly.