Ilana Dayan has the first interview former Mossad director Meir Dagan has ever given to Israeli TV. For many Israelis, it must be a bit like hearing Marcel Marceau speak the first word of his career, as Dagan has a reputation for being exceedingly laconic and unwilling to speak publicly or to the press. He’s changed his view over the past year since he’s left the agency and faced the very real prospect of an Israeli war against Iran.
Dayan is a superb interviewer who both brings out the best in her interviewees by being sympathetic to them, but also by challenging them in a dramatic fashion. For example, at one point she says to him: Barak says we have to act within the next nine months or Iran will have the bomb. You say we have till 2015. What if you are wrong? What if we wait as you suggest and they get the bomb and the Jewish people face a Holocaust? We will then have a situation we never experienced, in which we will face a nation of madmen with a nuclear weapon.
Dagan’s reply is quite interesting. He disagrees with her and says: Iran acts as a rational state. It takes into account the implications of its actions [and those of others]. Therefore, it’s not in a mad dash to get a nuclear weapon. Dayan responds: are you telling me that Ahmadinejad is a rational man [in Hebrew, she calls him a “rational goy” which is an odd, slightly racist locution]? Dagan answers: I think he is a sophisticated individual, but his audience is not an Israeli or western one. The Iranians are sophisticated, quite wise, and we should not make the mistake of dismissing them.
He says that for Israel enter into a regional war with its eyes open, this [going to war] should be necessary only if we are attacked or the sword is “beginning to cut the meat off living flesh.” To Dayan’s question whether or not Israel can successfully fight a war against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, he concedes that it could. But he adds: what will happen the day after? We have to think about the high price we will have to pay for this victory. To Barak’s foolhardy claims that there will be no more than 500 Israeli dead after such an attack, Dagan responds that the level of destruction, of paralysis of normal life in Israel, the ability to conduct an orderly society for any length of time, the price we will pay in human lives [lost] will be higher.
Dagan fought in the 1973 War and its impact is seared into his consciousness. He remembers Israel’s leaders who told their soldiers there would not be a war. And they were wrong. Dead wrong. The cost in human life was enormous. This is what leads Dagan to tell Israel today that its leaders are not immune from making fatal mistakes.
There is also a great deal of discussion of the veteran Israeli spymaster’s philosophical approach to war. Given how much blood Dagan has shed himself and ordered others to shed, it may be hard to believe that he has a conscience about it, that he regrets it and hates war with every fiber of his body. But I came away from this interview being impressed with the man, that while he has chosen a path I would never choose, that he has made a good faith effort to discharge his task honorably, or as honorably as possible under the circumstances.
At the end, Dayan asks him whether if it were possible for him to erase all memories of war from his consciousness, both the good and the bad, would he do it? He answers: very willingly. Given the level of self-deception and outright lying of which most politicians are capable these days, it’s easy to say that Dagan is posturing for the camera or angling for a political career. But I felt him to be genuine, a real, complicated, tormented, conflicted human being. Someone real, unlike the charlatans and schemers who he advised and who now face the decision of whether to go to war against Iran.
UPDATE: A reader published a comment in this post’s thread about an interview with Dagan (Hebrew) that was published in Maariv by Ben Caspit just after he retired from his Mossad position. The Angry Arab has published a paraphrase of a portion of this interview which unfortunately was taken out of context. I wanted to put it into proper perspective and translate the relevant passages. But before I do I want to make clear that I don’t see my job as whitewashing or defending a figure like Dagan, who clearly has blood on his hands (as do many similar figures playing these roles in Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran). But I do think it’s important that we acknowledge that people like him are complex, nuanced individuals who are capable to being fierce while at the same time being pragmatic if necessary:
…The real Dagan is far from the image of him as a “killer,” an Arab-hater thirsty for blood which he’s acquired over the years. Yes, he was an especially ferocious fighter, wounded twice, so that ever since he’s not been able to bend his knees or bow. That is why he will never bow before anyone…
His world-view is complex. Yes, he is a devout follower of the warrior tradition. [Ariel] Sharon said about him many times that he was an expert “in severing an Arab’s head from his body,” but this folklore does him an injustice.
Dagan knows how to kill terrorists. But he is no fan of war. In private conversations, he said once that he’s been in too many wars and suffered too many wounds, and Israel must go to war only when it is attacked or when the knife is hovering in the air over its neck or when it “feels the blade pressing on its jugular.”
Angry Arab didn’t note that the passage above quoting Sharon was indeed a statement about Dagan by the former prime minister who appointed the former to the job of Mossad chief. In other words, the notion of beheading Arabs is part of folklore and adumbrated by Sharon, who was expressing his own personal views and less making any statement about Dagan’s actual wartime record. Sharon is also famous for having directed Dagan to pursue his mission leading the Mossad “with a knife in his teeth.” Again, this is as much or more a mirror of Sharon’s martial outlook than it is a factual statement about Dagan’s.
I have no doubt that Dagan has killed those he viewed as enemies of Israel. I have no doubt that he’s no angel. But I also have no doubt that generals and war heroes can sometimes work miracles and save their nations from making terrible, foolhardy errors. Gen. DeGaulle withdrew France from Algeria and Dwight Eisenhower warned American about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Menachem Begin, the former terrorist commander, signed a peace deal with Egypt. It is possible that those who’ve known the savagery of war will do everything in their power to avoid it.
In that sense, I think it’s no accident that Dick Cheney and George Bush, neither of whom had themselves served in battle, got America into one disastrous war and another that we won’t see the end of for a long time. Maybe Meir Dagan can help Israel avoid such disasters.