By Ronen Bergman and Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Tel Aviv
Meir Dagan is speaking out again. He's standing on the stage of the Industrial and Commercial Club in Tel Aviv, a low-profile venue for such a high-profile issue. Should Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities? Dagan, a 66 year old who until January served as the head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, thinks not.
Once again, he is issuing a warning. He's chosen the same words to do so this time, too: "We have to think about what would happen the day after." He has repeatedly said that an attack would have horrific consequences for Israel -- that it would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.
Last Wednesday, just a few hours before Dagan's presentation, there were reports that Israeli fighter jets had conducted exercises over the Italian island of Sardinia. Their training program included attacking distant targets, conducting midair refueling and thwarting surface-to-air missiles. A vertical vapor trail was widely visible in the sky that afternoon as the military tested a newly developed Jericho 3 ballistic missile that can presumably also carry nuclear warheads up to 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles).
At the same time, London's Guardian newspaper reported that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron was planning to deploy warships, armed with cruise missiles, on a course for Iran.
The next morning, sirens could be heard throughout the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. People jumped out of their cars in a panic and ran to take shelter in bunkers. They feared the war might already have started, but it was just an exercise.
An Attack on Many Fronts
Such occurrences give rise to a number of questions: Can this be a coincidence? Is Israel preparing an attack, or is this saber-rattling just psychological warfare? Or, rather, is this meant to put pressure on the world -- and on Europe and the United States, in particular -- while delivering the message that if they don't act, Israel will?
This week, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to issue a new report that officially confirms for the first time that Iran is experimenting with technology that serves only one purpose: building a nuclear bomb.
This would be an ideal time for Israel to push for tougher sanctions. Indeed, it can't be ruled out that a diplomatic maneuver is in the works -- and, in fact, it seems rather likely. But that doesn't mean that Israel isn't also nonetheless preparing an attack.
On the contrary, it's very possible that Israel is laying the groundwork, both politically and militarily, for a preemptive strike. Israel believes that it has a maximum of 9-12 months to militarily put a halt to Iran's nuclear program. The US estimate is 18-21 months. Either way, that isn't very much time.
The ongoing debate in Israel over whether to launch an attack is more open than it ever has been. This debate cannot be part of a bluff because it doesn't help the prime minister when the general public suddenly wants to have a say in such matters.
Of course, journalists have always speculated on an attack, but now politicians, military leaders and intelligence officials are also joining in the chorus of people issuing public warnings. Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said this operation is keeping him awake at night -- though he retracted the statement the next day. The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a story under the headline "Atomic Pressure." The first sentence suggestively asked: "Have the prime minister and the defense minister decided among themselves to attack Iran's nuclear facilities?"
A Sudden, Terrifying Warning
Indeed, that is the key question. And the answer could lie with Meir Dagan, the man who moved this debate from the backrooms of the intelligence agencies and into the public limelight.
For over eight years, Dagan was Israel's most tight-lipped man -- the top-ranking spook at the Mossad, where he was known as "the man with the knife between his teeth." His special expertise is the "separation of an Arab from his head," then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is reported to have said around the time he appointed Dagan to run the Mossad. But since Jan. 6, 2011, Dagan has been speaking openly.
On his last day in office, Dagan invited Israeli journalists for the first time ever to the Mossad's headquarters, which has no official address and is not marked on any map. Then he announced that the Iranians would develop a nuclear bomb by the middle of the decade, at the earliest, but only if nothing and no one got in their way. He said it would take an additional three years before Iran developed a nuclear warhead. That would roughly put it in 2018, a date that would seem to make any attack now senseless.
Even if Israel attacked immediately, Dagan argued, it wouldn't halt Iran's nuclear program. On the contrary, the Iranians would be more motivated than ever to arm themselves and pursue a military course, while Israel would undoubtedly "pay a terrible, unbearable price." He said that Iran and Syria, along with Hamas and Hezbollah, the terror militias they financially back, would rain missiles on the country from north to south, killing thousands. "How can we defend ourselves against such an attack?" Dagan asked, adding: "I have no answer to that."
A Public Warning
Israel's top military censor sat next to Dagan, and when the presentation was over, the official told the journalists that they weren't allowed to publish anything they'd heard. This time it wasn't the Mossad chief who had to be protected from the public. Instead, it was the public that had to be protected from the Mossad chief.
This was an entirely unprecedented occurrence in Israel. The head of an intelligence agency had approached the public with a warning because he mistrusts the government, because he fears it could risk an unnecessary war, and because he apparently believes this decision has already been or is just about to be made.
With his statements, Dagan brought to light the secret wrangling between the intelligence agencies, the military and politicians over this issue, which is so essential to Israel's survival. What's more, if what Dagan said then and has repeated during his subsequent surprising appearances is true, then the prime minister and his defense minister actually intend to attack Iran.
Traitor or Hero?
Despite censorship, Dagan's words have trickled into the newspapers and caused a stir. Dagan is now making statements on nearly all political issues. He called the release of over 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive by Hamas for over five years, a "grave mistake." He criticized the government for not negotiating with the Palestinians, for allowing relations with Turkey to deteriorate and for further isolating Israel. But, above all, he has repeatedly warned against launching airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Since he started coming forward, some have viewed Dagan as a hero while others see him as an enemy of the state. The government, on the other hand, considers him a traitor and a madman, and people close to the prime minister accuse him of sabotage and maintain that he is trying to take revenge for being dismissed as the head of the Mossad. He has been forced to surrender his diplomatic passport, and a number of right-wing politicians have demanded that he stand trial. "If we could have arrested him," says one high-ranking member of the military, "then we would have done so."
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Benny Begin, a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud party, says that Dagan's actions amount to "a dangerous breach of trust verging on megalomania," adding that: "It's just despicable." Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon has called them part of an attempted coup.
For his part, Netanyahu is struggling to dispel the impression that there is still time to prevent the bomb. The Israeli prime minister considers the notion of an Iranian bomb to be comparable to the Holocaust. Indeed, he fears nothing more than the idea that the world might learn to live with a nuclear bomb in the hands of the ayatollahs. Even when he was still the opposition leader, he called on the Americans to take action on a number of occasions -- as can be read in the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables. He said that it was an historic moment -- and that world leaders had to make historic decisions.
Now it looks as if this moment may have arrived -- and as if Dagan might be trying to prevent precisely this from happening.
Preventing Another Holocaust
Who is Dagan, the man who was Israel's shadowy spymaster for so many years? Is he a courageous whistleblower -- or someone who is fed up with politics? How does somebody like him, a notorious Mossad chief, become the government's leading critic? And, most importantly, how credible are his warnings?
Dagan was born in January 1945 on the floor of an ice-cold freight train traveling from Siberia to Poland. At age 26, he was the commander of an elite Israeli military unit and was known for taking no prisoners. He was awarded a medal for taking a grenade from a terrorist with one hand and strangling him with the other. For him, being stronger is a matter of survival.
Throughout his tenure at the Mossad, he kept a photograph on his office wall of an elderly bearded Jew wearing a prayer shawl. The man is kneeling, his arms raised in the air, and an SS officer is pointing a gun at him. "This man was my grandfather," Dagan always told visitors. "Shortly after this photo was taken, on Oct. 5, 1942, he was murdered by the Nazis," he would reportedly say. "I look at this picture and promise that I will do everything in my power to ensure that something like this never happens again."
If one inquires at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, one can learn that a number of families claim to be related to the man in this picture. But Dagan firmly believes in this story. It is his personal link to the Holocaust -- and he sees it as a constant reminder of what an Iranian nuclear bomb could mean for Israel. In this sense, he resembles Netanyahu, who sees Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler.
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