Yes, you read the headline right. Though there is a touch of sarcasm in it.
Meir Dagan‘s valedictory on leaving the Mossad, where he was director for eight years, was remarkable for a man who was asked when appointed by Ariel Sharon, to go about his job with a “knife between his teeth.” In fact, if Yossi Melman is to be believed, Dagan has become a remarkable pragmatist regarding the burning strategic issues confronting Israel, most notably Iran (I’ve amplified the Haaretz English version with elements removed from the translation of the original):
…Dagan was quoted last week as saying…that Israel should use military force only if it is attacked, or if it has “a sword at its neck.”
These remarks were interpreted, and rightly so, as undermining the position of the prime minister, who wants to create the impression that if Iran doesn’t halt its efforts to attain nuclear weapons, there will be no way to avoid the use of military force against it. So during a meeting with foreign correspondents in Israel on Tuesday, Netanyahu argued that only a credible threat that military force will be used could get Iran to stop trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
The prime minister was not the only who did not like what Dagan said. Representatives of Western powers were also upset. “His remarks harmed the international effort to persuade Iran’s leaders that if they do not voluntarily suspend their uranium enrichment, Israel will attack it,” a liaison officer with the Mossad of a large Western intelligence organization told me. He wondered why Dagan even had to say anything.
…The answer is that Dagan, as always, said what was in his heart, and did not tailor his assessments to correspond to the requirements of premiers and top ministers. As someone who’s been wounded twice in Israel’s wars, he well knows the price and danger of war. And it’s possible that upon his retirement and with the impending retirement of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who like him is said to oppose the reckless, crazy idea that Israel should attack Iran, Dagan is trying to relay a warning to Netanyahu, and to his successors in the executive branch, not to make an adventurous decision.
There are several ways to evaluate this interesting passage. First, Melman seems to have a bit of a soft spot in his heart both for the Mossad as an institution and Dagan in particular. From what I know of Melman from his lacerating e mails they share a similarly sharp, unforgiving, self-righteous personality type. So you could somewhat discount the remarks above in that sense.
But overall I think they testify to the fact that despite the monstrous nature of some of Dagan’s acts, at bottom he’s capable of rational, pragmatic analysis of the facts put before him. He hates the Iranian regime no doubt as much as Michael Ledeen and if he could would topple it in a heartbeat. But from a purely pragmatic perspective I think he understands that an attack would be a disaster and end with the death not only of Israeli soldiers, but likely Israeli civilians as well. To his credit and in a way that separates him from political leaders like Netanyahu, he comprehends the horror that would be a regional war with Iran and likely her proxies (Hezbollah and Syria, among others).