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Friday, November 19, 2004
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Under a new
leader, Mossad takes the fight to the terrorists
By Dan Baron
Israel, Nov. 18 (JTA) -- On a
stormy night in 1950, 5-year-old
Huberman perched atop the bucking stern of an
immigrant ship and prayed to reach Israel's shore
safely. He did.
Now renamed Dagan and toughened by almost
a half-century defending the Jewish state, that son
of Russian refugees heads one of the world's most
fearsome secret services: the Mossad. Evidence is
mounting that Dagan has restored the Mossad's
reputation for deadly derring-do -- despite the
diplomatic risks for Israel. Since Dagan was made
spymaster in 2002 by his old army buddy, Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon, at least four Arab
terrorists have died in foreign operations widely
attributed to the Mossad.
Most recently, Hamas military strategist
Izzadin Sheikh Khalil was killed in Damascus
in a car bombing for which Israeli security sources
admitted responsibility -- the first time Jerusalem
had mounted an assassination in Syria's capital.
"Israel is in the paradoxical situation of not
having a death penalty but allowing itself to
target Arab terrorists outside its borders with
almost complete impunity," Gad Shimron, a
10-year Mossad veteran, told JTA. "Meir
Dagan fully subscribes to this thinking, unlike
some of his predecessors."
A retired general of compact build and few
words, Dagan has stayed in the shadows since taking
over the Mossad. But an interview he gave in 1998,
while serving as counterterrorism adviser in the
Prime Minister's Office, was instructive. "In my
opinion, no terrorist should feel immune,
anywhere," he told Channel Two television.
"I think that a person's life
is forfeit the moment he decides to adopt"
It was an attitude that, to many, seemed
warranted after Al-Qaida blew up an Israeli-owned
hotel and tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger
jet in Kenya in November 2002. Sixteen people died
in the hotel bombing, but the toll easily could
have been hundreds more had the plane been hit.
Sharon gave Dagan a new mandate to hunt down
Israel's enemies abroad. The news was not well
received in Europe, which after the massacre of
Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics had
weathered Mossad assassinations of Palestinian
fugitives on its soil.
The Swedish Parliament
held an emergency session at which some
lawmakers urged that Israel be told that as a
civilized country it should not resort to hit
teams. Dagan was undeterred. The Mossad tripled
its recruitment, even launching a Web site where
would-be spies can apply. And, security sources
say, much of the agency's annual budget of some
$350 million has been diverted from traditional
intelligence gathering and analysis to field
operations and "special tasks."
"As someone who is privy to the facts, but is
not at liberty to divulge them, I can say this with
complete authority: The Mossad under Meir Dagan has
undergone a revolution in terms of organization,
intelligence and operations," Ehud Yatom, a
member of the Knesset Subcommittee on Secret
Services, wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper.
"And he is far from done." Over the past two years,
the Mossad has foiled three major Islamist attacks
intended against Israeli targets in Africa, and
another in Thailand, according to sources.
"Meir is the quintessential contractor," said
Amram Mitzna, a former Labor Party chairman
who served with Dagan during Israel's military
occupation of southern Lebanon. "Once given a
mission, he is simply unstoppable."
But the counterterrorist quest has not been
allowed to supercede another Israeli priority --
tracking Iran's nuclear program. The result is a
caseload that, on at least one occasion, appears to
have caused the Mossad an embarrassing slip-up.
Earlier this year, two Israelis were caught in
Auckland trying to obtain a New Zealand passport by
assuming the identity of a bedridden local man.
They pleaded guilty and spent
six months in jail.
[Not so: they were
released surprisingly early].
Accusing the convicts of being Mossad agents -- a
charge neither confirmed nor denied in Jerusalem --
New Zealand suspended diplomatic ties with
Intelligence experts speculated that the
Israelis were under pressure to obtain a New
Zealand passport, with the relatively free access
it would grant its holder to Arab countries and
Iran, for an impending mission. The two may not
have had sufficient training in spycraft, since the
younger of them was barely 30. "Our zest to get the
enemy at all costs sometimes costs us dearly in
terms of international standing," said Yigal
Eyal, a former Mossad operative who now
lectures on counterterrorism at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem.
The price in prestige has had ramifications
closer to home, within the high walls of the
Mossad's Herzliya headquarters. Dagan succeeded
Efraim Halevy, who as agency director
emphasized back-door diplomacy over field
operations -- for example, brokering Israel's peace
accord with Jordan.
For many in the Israeli intelligence community,
this year's Damascus assassination and New Zealand
debacle are all-too reminiscent of the Mossad's
botched 1997 attempt on the life of Hamas politburo
chief Khaled Meshaal in Amman. Halevy owed
his promotion to that episode, as it forced the
resignation of then-Mossad director Danny
A Channel Two expose said around 200 Mossad
operatives, including seven section heads, had
resigned in protest since Dagan took over. This was
contested by one former spy, who attributed most of
the walkouts to a change in Israeli pension laws
that made early retirement attractive to senior
staff. Another claim made in the television report
was that Dagan had jeopardized the Mossad's working
reputation by declining, on one occasion, to
cooperate with former CIA chief George
One of Dagan's predecessors came to his defense.
"I know nothing of this," Shabtai Shavit
told Channel Two. "People would be amazed if they
knew just how much cooperation there is." But no
one disputes that Dagan's style poses difficulties
when it comes to the closely collaborative world of
espionage. "Meir Dagan remains, at heart, a
refugee," veteran Israeli reporter Ilana
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