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Mossad chief seen as indispensable on Iran

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 26 February 2010

JERUSALEM – Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassination in Dubai of top Hamas arms smuggler Mahmoud Mabhouh, but the killing is raising questions about whether it will compromise Israel’s effort to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That’s because one of the key figures behind the effort, Mossad chief Meir Dagan, is coming under heavy criticism for the sloppy operation in Dubai.

Operating under the assumption that Israel was behind the Dubai hit, some Israeli analysts are calling for Dagan’s ouster. They say the Mossad has adopted an irresponsible, trigger-happy approach to fighting terrorism, and they point to the diplomatic imbroglio facing Israel for the use of fake British and Irish passports by members of the hit squad, who traveled under the names of European citizens now living in Israel.

Dagan’s tenure at the Mossad is up for renewal at the end of the year.

Defenders of Dagan point to the long list of Mossad achievements in the war on terrorism and the campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, and argue that his tenure at the intelligency agency should be extended for an unprecedented fourth time. They insist that his knowledge of the Iranian theater is unmatched, and that as the clock reaches zero hour on the Iranian nuclear threat, his input will be invaluable — and not only for Israel.

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Mossad chief Meir Dagan, shown at a Knesset committee meeting in February 2008, has earned plaudits for his actions on Iran and some criticism for his tactics countering terrorism. Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Under Dagan, the Mossad has had just two priorities: delaying Iran’s nuclear program and counter-terrorism.

“The list must be short. If we continue pretending we can do everything, in the end we won’t do anything,” Dagan was quoted as saying when he was appointed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2002.

Sharon reportedly told Dagan to run the agency “with a knife between its teeth.”

The main focus of his tenure has been Iran. Soon after Dagan took over the Mossad, the agency reportedly passed on information to the United States and others that the rogue Pakistani nuclear dealer Abdel Qadir Khan was helping the Iranians build a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.

Since then, a string of unexplained accidents has afflicted the Iranian nuclear project: scientists have disappeared, laboratories have caught fire, aircraft have crashed, and whole batches of equipment have proved faulty.

In 2007, Israeli intelligence detected work on a secret nuclear program in Syria, and in September of that year Israeli planes bombed the site of a North Korea-style reactor the Syrians were building.

The Mossad also was credited for the discovery of a hidden Iranian enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom last September — a find that finally convinced even previously skeptical international observers that Iran indeed was conducting a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Although the Mossad has not claimed credit for any of this, regional players have little doubt as to who has been behind the killings, the accidents, and the pinpoint intelligence.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram daily ran an article in mid-January calling Dagan Israel’s Superman and claiming that he almost singlehandedly has delayed the Iranian bomb.

“Without this man, the Iranian nuclear program would have taken off years ago,” the newspaper’s former Gaza correspondent Ashraf Abu al-Haul wrote. In a moment of rare praise for an Israeli in the Egyptian press, he called Dagan’s actions against Israel’s enemies “very brave.”

Now, as the international community dithers over new sanctions against Iran and the Iranians move closer to nuclear weapons’ capacity, Dagan’s reading of the situation will be crucial. He recently revised backward his estimate of when Iran will be able to manufacture a bomb it can deliver to 2014.

Still, there are fears in the international community that Israel may act to stop the Iranian program before it reaches its “breakout point” — when Iran will have stockpiled enough highly enriched uranium to manufacture a bomb if it so chooses. That could come by the end of this year.

For now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he favors giving sanctions a chance as long as they are tough — not allowing oil out of Iran or oil distillates like petroleum into the country.

“If one is talking about what are effective sanctions, they must include the constriction of the export of oil from Iran and the import of refined oil into Iran,” Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors meeting. “I think that nothing else stands a real chance to stop the progress of the regime, but this has a chance. At least it must be tried and must be tried now.”

Few criticize Dagan’s actions on Iran, but some question his derring-do tactics on terrorism as allegedly reflected in the Dubai operation. They argue that his risk-taking could cost Israel diplomatically and provoke heavy terrorist retaliation. His critics also contend that taking out top terrorists is a dubious proposition: Often their replacements are even more dangerous.

Dagan’s eight years at the helm have seen several targeted killings of top Hezbollah and Hamas operatives in Beirut and Damascus attributed to the Mossad — the most notable of which was the assassination of Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyeh in a car bombing in Damascus in February 2008. Mugniyeh, who reportedly planned the attack on the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut in 1983, had been on the wanted lists of Israel and the United States for more than two decades.

Late last year the Mossad, although it never acknowledged any involvement, seemed to step up its activities.

In early December, a bus carrying Hamas members and Iranian officials exploded outside Damascus. Two weeks later, two Hamas members were killed in a mysterious bombing in the heart of Hezbollah’s Dahiya stronghold in southern Beirut. Last month, an Iranian nuclear scientist died in a bombing outside his home in Tehran. A week later, Mabhouh was found dead in his Dubai hotel room.

Dagan also has pulled off some major intelligence coups in the war on terror, enabling Israeli forces to intercept weapons destined for Hamas and Hezbollah as far afield as Sudan and on the high seas near Cyprus.

In mid-January 2009, a convoy carrying weapons for Hamas during Operation Cast Lead reportedly was bombed by Israel Air Force planes in Sudan. In November, the Francop, an Antigua-flagged vessel carrying more than 100 tons of rockets, mortars, and anti-tank weapons for Hezbollah, was captured by the Israeli navy.

Dagan’s advice on Iran over the coming months will carry considerable weight. He seems to think there is still time for actions other than a full-scale military operation.

If and when it comes to that, however, chances are that despite the Dubai incident, Netanyahu, one of Dagan’s staunchest admirers, will want Dagan at his side helping to plan it.

JTA

 
 

Ahead of Palestinian U.N. gambit, Europe is in play

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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visits the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on June 2 during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. Isaac Harari/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – It was a sign that ties between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations remain strong despite the apparent tensions two weeks ago when the two leaders met at the White House.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shot down a French proposal for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that had put the Israeli leader in a quandary.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted the French proposal, which included a settlement freeze, his right-leaning coalition partners might have bolted the government. If he refused, it would have made it seem as if he were the intransigent party in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — a perilous position as France and other leading European states consider voting for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

During a visit to Israel and the west bank in early June, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outlined his plan for restarting the stalled peace process: The goal would be to establish two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 lines with land swaps; borders and security would be discussed first, Jerusalem and refugees later. That part of the proposal mirrored Obama’s call two weeks ago for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But the French proposal also envisaged achieving a full-fledged permanent peace deal within a year and a freeze of any unilateral steps in the interim. For the Palestinians, that would mean not petitioning the United Nations for statehood in September. For Israel, it would mean halting settlement construction in the west bank.

Juppe invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas to an international conference in Paris in July to kick-start the process. Abbas quickly replied in the affirmative. Netanyahu said he would first consult with the Americans.

The package was attractive to the Palestinians because of its clear focus on the 1967 lines and its relatively short timetable. The sweetener for Israel was the explicit reference to “two states for two peoples,” implying that Israel would be, as Netanyahu insists, recognized as the state of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu found himself in a bind. He already had said no to negotiations structured that way when Obama raised the issue. Netanyahu insists the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sign of readiness to end the conflict. In addition, Hamas, the terrorist organization that is now part of the Palestinian leadership following the recent reconciliation with Fatah, must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements before a credible peace process can be contemplated.

But perhaps even more important, Netanyahu has serious issues with the 1967 lines plus land swaps formula. He insists on maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and, besides the large settlement blocs, he wants to retain security areas along the Samarian mountain ridge, as well as sites of historic importance such as Hebron.

This goes well beyond anything that could be construed as being “based on the 1967 lines.”

Were Netanyahu to accept the French proposal, coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party might quit the government, and Likud hard-liners like Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon might challenge Netanyahu’s authority.

Still, despite these very serious obstacles, the prize for taking up the French offer was tempting: Palestinian deferment of plans to seek U.N. membership this year. There was also a big stick: If Netanyahu rejected the French offer, Juppe intimated that France and several of its European allies would vote for U.N. recognition of Palestine.

With Clinton’s nix, Netanyahu is off the hook.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has quit trying to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining the two-thirds majority they need for recognition in the 192-member U.N. General Assembly. Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where Obama has promised that the United States will veto any unilateral vote on Palestinian statehood, General Assembly votes do not carry the force of international law.

Yet even in the General Assembly, Israel hopes to obtain as many “No” votes as possible from democratic countries. This, Israeli officials argue, would carry enormous moral weight.

Thus the European Union, with its 27 democracies, is crucial. Over the past two months, Netanyahu has traveled to Berlin, London, and Paris in an effort to convince key European leaders not to back Palestinian U.N. membership. Had he been the one to reject the French offer, his European strategy could collapse.

Netanyahu’s critics say that even if Israel wins this battle, a General Assembly vote favoring statehood will deliver the Palestinians a major diplomatic triumph and possibly trigger a new wave of Arab Spring-style protests in the west bank.

The Israeli government’s failure to take serious action to pre-empt the Palestinian U.N. move and its consequences has drawn strong domestic criticism in Israel.

The most powerful voice in recent days has been from Meir Dagan, who recently retired from his post at the helm of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Dagan says that Israel should have responded positively to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, come up with an initiative of its own, and pressed for a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. He also has expressed deep discomfort with the judgment of Israel’s current political leaders, hinting darkly that they might even contemplate attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program to divert attention from the United Nations in September.

For now, a Palestinian U.N. move in September is still not a foregone conclusion.

By quashing the French plan, Clinton kept the initiative firmly in Washington, where the Americans are talking to both the Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to create conditions for a renewal of peace talks that would render the Palestinian U.N. gambit superfluous.

In the next few weeks, in what could be the defining moment of his premiership, Netanyahu will have to decide whether to embrace a last-chance initiative to avert the U.N. imbroglio in September or to stay put and risk the potential diplomatic fallout while keeping his coalition intact.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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