Analysis: Another year of Dagan means continuity for Sharon's Iran policy

In many ways the country has been undergoing a process of de-Sharonization recently. Two major appointments made during his time, those of Halutz and Karadi, are viewed in retrospect as mistakes.

meir dagan 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
meir dagan 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In less than a fortnight, we've seen the departure of the commanders of both the police and the army, leaving the upper levels of their organizations in turmoil. Monday's decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to extend Meir Dagan's term as head of the Mossad until the end of 2008 is a significant indication that at least on two fronts, Israeli policy is holding fast. In many ways the country has been undergoing a process of de-Sharonization in recent months. Two major appointments made during his time, those of Dan Halutz and Moshe Karadi, are in retrospect being viewed as big mistakes. The growing consensus is that the now-comatose ex-prime minister was at the root of the wave of corruption that seems to be washing over the entire establishment, and of the general public feeling that things are going wrong and we've lost direction. Against this background, keeping Dagan in charge is an indication that on some matters of national security and strategy, Sharon's spirit is still calling the shots. Dagan wasn't a typical Sharon crony like the members of the Farm Forum, who convened weekly to plot politics. The connection between the two men dates back to 1970, when, as a young paratrooper captain, Dagan was ordered by OC Southern Command Sharon to form what would become one of the most controversial units in IDF history, the Sayeret Rimon. Dagan and his men, dressed as Arabs, advanced from alley to orchard in the Gaza Strip, ruthlessly hunting down Palestinian terror cells. They met up again a decade later, when Col. Dagan was put in charge of south Lebanon and worked together with defense minister Sharon on the secret plan to destroy the PLO's state within a state in the Land of the Cedars. In the 1982 Lebanon War, Dagan, by then commander of the Barak Armored Brigade, was on the first tank to enter Beirut. The two men's shared belief in confidently using Israel's military power to defend its national interests brought them together in the political sphere when Dagan left his job as head of the government's anti-terror council in 2000 in protest over prime minister Ehud Barak's offer of the Golan Heights to the Syrians, and joined Sharon in the Likud, heading its election day headquarters in 2001. But Dagan had little time for political life, and Sharon returned him to the vale of shadows a year later, appointing him head of the Mossad. Opinions are divided regarding Dagan's leadership of the Mossad. While few will dispute that the organization regained the operational edge it lost under his predecessors - and over the last four years it has rarely if ever been involved in scandals - critics blame him for poor working relations with many subordinates, an unhealthy rivalry with the IDF's Military Intelligence and neglecting the other traditional Mossad roles: strategic research and secret diplomacy with foreign intelligence services and international elements that don't have formal relations with Israel. To his credit, after a year or so on the job, Dagan realized the importance of these roles. Over the last two years, they have once again been given high priority, and the organization has been energetically recruiting accordingly. Dagan's supporters point to the way he changed many of the Mossad's working practices in response to criticism after the intelligence assessments on the eve of the Iraq War proved wrong, and more recently, they point to the prescient advice he gave the government during the second Lebanon war. Dagan was the only senior security official to say at the outset of the war that the air force alone couldn't finish off Hizbullah, and that a large ground operation was unavoidable. The Mossad failed to deliver the exact location of Hassan Nasrallah and Hizbullah headquarters, but all in all and unlike the IDF, the organization came out of the war virtually unscathed, and Dagan has little to fear from the Winograd Commission's report. He is also credited with stepping up the pressure on Hamas; a task force headed by him has made sure that little foreign money has reached the Palestinian Authority government. Dagan's most important role now is spearheading Israel's battle against the Iranian nuclear program. In this, he is faithfully continuing Sharon's policy whereby Israel keeps a low profile and expects the international community to deal with the Iranians. Many in government and the defense establishment believe this policy is outdated and that a more vocal campaign, the likes of which Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu is waging in every public appearance he makes in Israel and abroad, is now needed. They believe Dagan is the wrong person to lead this campaign and that it requires someone with better diplomatic skills. In recent months, there have been rumors that Olmert is thinking of appointing Dan Meridor minister in charge of leading the international campaign against Iran, but that hasn't happened. One reason for the extension of Dagan's term is that he is to continue in his Iranian role. This means the government isn't planning on changing the Sharon policy in the near future. It is also an indication that the intelligence assessments are that Teheran is still a few years away from achieving nuclear capability and there is still time for quiet action. The other strategic issue on which Dagan has taken a stand is regarding the intentions of the Syrian leadership. While the head of research in Military Intelligence, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidetz, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that President Bashar Assad's peace overtures are genuine, Dagan insisted they were merely a cover for Syria's hostile intentions. By giving him another year on the job, Olmert is reaffirming that his government isn't planning on entering negotiations with Syria anytime soon.