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Spymaster’s final interview reveals deep rift in Israel

The National – 11 April 2016

If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Meir Dagan must have relished his retribution on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – it was delivered from beyond the grave.

The eulogies barely over, the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth published excerpts from an interview conducted with Israel’s former spymaster shortly before his death last month.

In damning remarks, the former Mossad chief described Mr Netanyahu as a man trapped in self-delusion, believing himself to be one the world’s “greatest geniuses”. In truth, said Dagan, he was “the worst manager I knew”.

Their falling out centred on Mr Netanyahu’s belligerent posturing over Iran. He was the only Israeli prime minister ever to have “reached a state … in which the entire security establishment essentially didn’t accept his position”.

With fitting symbolism, as these comments were made public it was revealed that corneas donated by Dagan had restored the vision of two Israelis.

He presumably hoped that his last interview would be of similar benefit to many more Israelis, giving them insights into the opaque world of Israel’s political and security elites.

In a speech at Dagan’s graveside last month, Mr Netanyahu exploited what he presumed to be Dagan’s now-permanent silence. He painted him as a solid ally in the struggle against “Islamist zealotry”, claiming Dagan had warned that the “fight against terror will continue for another 100 years”.

The interviews present a more complex picture. They confirm in the bluntest terms what was already widely suspected: that a split of unprecedented proportions had developed between Mr Netanyahu and his spy chief before and after Dagan retired in late 2011.

The stark differences between the two were encapsulated in the military metaphors each employed. Dagan warned in 2011 that Israel should avoid war unless “the sword is cutting into our flesh”. Mr Netanyahu, by contrast, argued last October that Israel would have to “live forever by the sword”.

Dagan was no peacenik, even on his death bed. Rather, his hostility derived from an assessment that the prime minister threatened Israel’s “survival as a Jewish state”.

Dagan believed that Mr Netanyahu’s desire to strike Iran militarily showed a profound misunderstanding of realpolitik.

First, bombing Iran, Dagan concluded, would spur its leadership into developing a nuclear bomb at all costs – the very opposite outcome Mr Netanyahu claimed to want. Dagan preferred stealthy subversion of Iran’s technological abilities, from assassinating scientists to infecting computers.

Second, a military attack was adamantly opposed by the United States because of the regional and global repercussions. Dagan feared that Mr Netanyahu was recklessly indifferent to the views of his US partners, instead prioritising narrow domestic political considerations.

Dagan’s views were shared by the heads of the other branches of Israel’s security complex – and ultimately they defeated Mr Netanyahu.

After the US moved to resolve the stand-off with Iran diplomatically and so pre-empt an Israeli strike, the battle initiated by Dagan has shifted focus: it is now about how to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Again, almost the entire security establishment objects to Mr Netanyahu and his right wing government’s policy of unapologetic and endless war against the Palestinians.

Hope, they believe, must be injected into the mix – both to keep the Palestinians pacified enough to accept the continuing half-rule of the Palestinian Authority, and to spare the blushes of the White House as it sponsors the iniquities of occupation.

Once, a vote of no-confidence from Israel’s security elites would have been the kiss of death for a serving prime minister. But not for Mr Netanyahu.

Instead his far-right supporters have extended the category of enemy from Iran, the Arab world and the Palestinians to Israel’s very own military leadership.

The execution of a wounded Palestinian by an Israeli soldier last month in Hebron – caught on video – is intensifying that battle.

Gadi Eisenkot, the military chief of staff, has been reviled, including from inside his own ranks, over his mild criticisms of the soldier’s actions.

Last week Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister and a former chief of staff, incurred the right’s wrath for backing Mr Eisenkot. A popular image on social media shows crosshairs over Mr Yaalon and the caption “Politically eliminated”.

On Saturday he warned that Israel was “descending into dangerous and destructive realms”.

As veteran Israeli analyst Uri Avnery has observed, “for the first time in the history of Israel we are witnessing a full-fledged mutiny” against the once-revered military establishment – both from the Israeli public and from soldiers.

Dagan hoped that by going public with his fight against Mr Netanyahu, he would open Israelis’ eyes. Instead, he has opened a Pandora’s box.

Almost no one in Israel, it seems, wants justice for the Palestinians. But a gulf is opening up between the old order that cares what others think of Israel and a new order that refuses to make even the smallest concessions to the sensitivities of the outside world.

In that war, Mr Netanyahu and the far-right look set to emerge triumphant.

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