Meir Dagan, gadfly

The outspoken former Israeli spy chief is a lens on internal Israeli debates that are often overlooked in the US.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Jan. 2 file photo, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) hugs Meir Dagan, then outgoing Mossad boss, after thanking him at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
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Israel reveres its generals and spy chiefs. They traditionally wield great influence over security decisions while in power, and keep mum once they're out.

But recently retired Mossad boss Meir Dagan has been on a tear. Famously reticent to talk while running Israel's spy agency, he remained quiet after stepping down in September following eight years on the job. But then this May he started to make up for lost time, speaking out in a way that is infuriating allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He called the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran "the stupidest thing I have ever heard." He also said that Israel must, for its own well-being, accept the Saudi-led peace plan that would see Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and give Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem.

Recommended: Bomb Iran? Why 5 top Israeli figures don't want to do it.

Israel's Channel 2 reported over the weekend that Dagan was ordered to immediately surrender his diplomatic passport (Israeli officials are apparently generally allowed a grace period with the passport after leaving office) and speculated that it could be "to get even" with Dagan.

What brought all of this talking out of Dagan, who presided over numerous successful Mossad operations during his tenure, including the presumed assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabbouh in Dubai in January 2010? This is a man whose life's work has been dedicated to Israel's security.

He says that he's talking precisely so that he can help enhance that security.

Perhaps most irksome were his comments on Iran in May, when he spoke publicly for the first time since leaving office. He declared a strike on Iran's acknowledge nuclear facilities would violate international law, the disbursed nature of Iran's program would make it an extremely difficult mission, and the result would be "war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end," he said.

He estimated that Iran has the ability to fire rockets at Israel for months in response, and that Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Iranian ally, could chose to launch thousands of its cruder grad missiles at Israel.

He followed all this up earlier this month by saying an Israeli strike "will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race." The English language version of the Yehdiot Aharonot, one of the country's largest newspapers, termed the comments and response the "Dagan Affair."

That Israel doesn't really have the ability to wipe out Iran's nuclear program (Iran has been preparing for that eventuality for years) on its own is widely understood (the musings of Jeffrey Goldberg notwithstanding) but it's considered bad form to acknowledge that the option isn't really on the table.

Dagan isn't the only former Mossad boss having his say. Zvi Zamir, who stepped down as Mossad chief in 1974, spoke out earlier this month against what he termed the mishandling of security at a border post in the occupied Golan Heights, in which 23 mostly Syrian demonstrators were killed. He said a better fence would have prevented the demonstrators from nearing the Israeli troops stationed there. "I'm concerned by the fact that soldiers, my grandchildren, are firing at unarmed people," he told Israel Army Radio. "We are eroding the purity of arms."

But he also expressed reservations for Dagan's unprecedented bout of frank speaking. "I can't recall a Mossad chief that had this kind of outburst. I was as shocked as any reader and wondered why this was in the newspaper, but he didn't reveal any secrets."

Dagan has also been outspoken on the peace process. Earlier this month he said the Arab Peace Initiative, first put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002, should be accepted by Israel. "We must adopt the Saudi initiative," he said. "We have no other way, and not because (Palestinians) are my top priority, but because I am concerned about Israel's well being and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel's existence. If we don't make proposals and if we don't take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner.”

What is the initiative? It calls for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders, give up East Jerusalem as a capital for a future Palestinian state and, in exchange, receive full recognition and formal peace with all of its Arab neighbors. His comments came just a few weeks after President Obama was attacked by supporters of Israel for suggesting that a two-state solution should be based on the "1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps."

Republican presidential hopefuls described Obama's comment as variously a "betrayal" and "dangerous." Mitt Romney even trotted out the beltway's trope of the moment: Israel had been "thrown under the bus." Netanyahu was furious.

Clearly vast swathes of the Israeli establishment disagree with Dayan. But it's a reminder of how lively the debate is within Israel on the best route to peace and security, a fact that is often forgotten here in the US.

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