||The Persian Gulf has been a trip wire for Israeli intelligence chiefs for years. Military intelligence experts have been proven wrong and even disgraced, for example, because of their assessments prior to and following the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Their predictions, in briefings before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, were undermined by the Iranians who initially did not collapse in the face of Saddam Hussein's onslaught, and in the end made do with a bad situation and signed a cease-fire agreement. Then came the failed assessments during the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars.
This month the "Gulf curse" hit Meir Dagan, who recently had his tenure as director of the Mossad espionage service, extended to an eighth year - who made a belittling remark about the intensity and significance of the protests against the regime in Tehran.
In gaining yet another year, Dagan matches the achievement of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Hofi, who headed the Mossad from 1974 to 1982; only Isser Harel served for a longer period. However, Dagan is no reincarnation of Hofi, whose style of management was centralist, but who was friendly and modest. Dagan, known for his off-color comments, exercises his power quite brutally, enjoying the fact that other senior officials in the government establishment are reluctant to confront him. In intelligence terms this is a great advantage: He is apparently the only one who has learned to grasp, based on first-hand knowledge, how the minds of Middle Eastern dictators work.
Dagan, who will retire when he is 65, on December 31, 2010, as the second-oldest Mossad chief (the eldest being his immediate predecessor, Ephraim Halevy), has sufficient stamina to wage battles on two fronts. The first is within Mossad, against his subordinates, who always lose because the prime minister, their boss' superior, does not intervene on their behalf. This has been the case with all the prime ministers under whom Dagan has served: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. The second front involves the realm presided over by the defense minister, and sometimes includes the chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence, with whom Dagan likes to quarrel.
Earlier this month, in a rare show of fraternity, Dagan shared the podium at an event sponsored by the National Defense College (NDC) with MI chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin and the director of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin. The three accepted an invitation by Brig. Gen. (res.) Amnon Sofrin, former head of research for the Prime Minister's Office, and founder of the Israel Defense Forces' combat intelligence corps, to address NDC students. In such a situation, it is usually better for Yadlin to avoid sitting in the middle, with his ribs exposed to his neighbors' elbows. However, this time the three went out of their way to be agreeable.
Counting the minutes
Now that it's clear Dagan will retire and that his successor will only be selected more than a year from now - a decision that prompted his deputy to resign last week - curiosity in the intelligence community today is focusing on more imminent decisions, such as the appointments of the next MI chief and the next head of the Shin Bet (who will take over on May 15, 2010). Within the Shin Bet there are three candidates to succeed Diskin, who is counting the minutes until he leaves: two deputies whom he appointed, and the most talented candidate of all, even if Diskin who is not hot on him - G., head of the southern district, who is going abroad in August for advanced studies and will wait in the wings.
After IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak finally agree, with the prime minister's consent, on who should succeed Yadlin at MI, he will be the first to retire from the pinnacle of the intelligence community, most likely in the coming months. Meanwhile, the term of the head of MI's research division, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, has been extended for a fifth year, until next summer. The leading candidate to replace him is Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, who has served air force intelligence and MI's research division.
Another recent senior appointment in the army's intelligence branch is that of Col. Herzi Halevy as head of its operations division. As commander of the 35th Paratroops Brigade during Operation Cast Lead, Halevy sought to promote the importance of immediate transmission of intelligence from the "producer" to the "consumer": i.e., from the combat commander who is engaging the enemy in the field, to intelligence staff. When assuming his new post, Halevy will replace - for the third time, in different positions - Brig. Gen. Nitsan Alon, his predecessor as deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit.
Meir Dagan came a long way to reach his current position. Danny Yatom first met him at the IDF induction center in the summer of 1963, when both reported for compulsory service. Yatom intended to volunteer for the Paratroops until he ran into an acquaintance at the center, who suggested he try to get into what was then the new and rather mysterious Sayeret Matkal. While waiting to be interviewed near the unit's hut, Yatom watched a tanned, skinny teenager who pulled out a pocket knife and deftly threw it at the surrounding tree trunks; it was Meir Huberman, later Dagan. Watching his performance, Yatom was sure the reconnaissance unit would not forgo his services. The selectors were not as impressed, however: Yatom was accepted, Dagan was not. At that time, neither man could imagine that years later, they would reach the rank of major general and be appointed, each in his turn, to head Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, otherwise known as Mossad.
Two weeks ago, when the Netanyahu government bestowed another year upon Dagan - a decision begrudgingly accepted by Ehud Barak - he had a right to feel victorious. Whoever did not want him in Sayeret Matkal got him as long-standing director of Mossad with all the attendant glory. For his part, Yatom, a loyal member of Barak's circle but also a target of insults there, wrested his appointment as Mossad chief from then-prime minister Shimon Peres, who was ostensibly honoring a previous agreement between Yatom and Yitzhak Rabin. However, Yatom was compelled to resign from Mossad after two short, bad years, while Dagan has developed a reputation there as someone who has masterminded many deeds and tricks, rebuilt the institution from the ruins left by his predecessor, Halevy, and has been an "angel of destruction" in disrupting the machinations of Israel's enemies.
Like Barak, Yatom and others, Dagan was a commando officer (in the Rimon reconnaissance unit in Gaza, rather than Sayeret Matkal). He moved over to the Armored Corps, commanded a battalion, a brigade and a division. Dagan, like Barak, was Sharon's protege. In the last two years of Dan Shomron's tenure as chief of staff, Dagan was a brigadier general, the head of the operations division - and as such, directly under Barak, who was deputy chief of staff - and Operations Directorate chief. The friction between him and Barak peaked during the 1991 Gulf War, after which Barak was appointed chief of staff, and planned to promote his friends from Sayeret Matkal, Amiram Levin, Nehemiah Tamari and Uzi Dayan (Yatom was already a major general), at the expense of Dagan and others. Under pressure from defense minister Moshe Arens, Barak was forced to keep a promise to promote Dagan, but did not assign him to a significant post. Dagan won a partial revenge after leaving the IDF, when he managed the 2001 election campaign of Sharon, who beat Barak.
A year and a half later Dagan was brought to Mossad and since then he has not stopped looking for trees at which to hurl his knife. He did not become powerful because of his assessment capabilities; sometimes he was proven right and sometimes he was mistaken. The main criteria for his job include the ability to gather information, to produce vital intelligence and to carry out operations. There is a worrying precedent, however. During Hofi's final year, Mossad fell into the trap of siding with the Lebanese Christian Phalange and being drawn into the first Lebanon war. Dagan's desire for an eighth year - as some think - because of his anticipation of developments connected with Iran, is a gamble that could end badly.</span><td colspan="3"><img src="/hasen/images/0.gif" width="1" height="10" border="0">
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