A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stirrings in Mossad over Succession, Iran

Some interesting stirrings in the Israel intelligence community. Mossad Chief Meir Dagan recently had his tenure extended for an additional year in order to monitor Iranian nuclear issues, which will give him an eight year tenure. But he has also recently stated publicly that Iran is five years or so from getting a nuclear weapon, a much longer calendar than the official Israeli government position. Lately there's been a lot of turmoil over Mossad: in Dagan's tenure, four deputy chiefs have either been fired or resigned, and the latest, a deputy identified only as "T", just quit, possibly over the extension of Dagan's term. Earlier reports refer to a deputy known as "T" who was apparently head of Operations, and this would indicate a key figure stepping down. T, in turn, reportedly replaced a previous Deputy, "N," who had a falling out with Dagan.

Opposition Kadima Member of the Knesset (MK) Jacob Edery has introduced a bill to limit the Mossad chief's tenure to four years — the same as the IDF Chief of Staff and the head of Shin Bet — with at most a one year extension in critical times. Some Israeli reports are saying that Dagan has served longer than any other Mossad chief, but that's not true: the legendary Isser Harel ran the agency from 1952 to 1963. But that was a different era. The same story reporting this claims that a friend of Dagan's has suggested that his successor will come neither from Mossad's own ranks nor from the IDF (the usual sources) but rather might be Yuval Diskin, the present head of Shin Bet. (If you're new to this, Mossad is the overseas intelligence arm, the CIA in American terms or SIS in British; Shin Bet is the internal security intelligence body, the FBI or MI5, but with responsibilities in the occupied territories as well.) Dagan had served with both the IDF and Shin Bet before being named to Mossad by Ariel Sharon in 2002.

Now, until the past ten years or so, the head of Mossad (and the head of Shin Bet) were never identified during their tenure; the head of Mossad was referred to as the memouneh or "responsible person" or "entrusted person", but never named. Today both chiefs are routinely identified and speak publicly in their own name. And prior to that most Israelis who had any real interest in the matter had a pretty good idea who the chiefs were. Mossad's headquarters location (north of Tel Aviv, along the coast road) is also one of those ill-kept secrets. You can find it marked on Google Earth, and my understanding is that that is indeed the correct site. But Mossad was never a disqualification for higher office: Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spent a long career running Mossad in Europe, and Tzipi Livni and others have served in it.

The interesting thing is that, although Dagan seems to be off-message on Iranian nukes as far as the Netanyahu administration is concerned, he has been extended another year. And that has caused trouble within Mossad itself, apparently related to succession issues.

Mossad has long managed, through friendly writers and selective release of data, to enjoy a rather good reputation, going back to the aforementioned Isser Harel, who caught Adolf Eichmann. Certainly they are competent intelligence analysts, but their covert operations have often gone astray, sometimes very badly. Oddly enough the myth of the all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent Mossad seems to linger most in the minds of Israel's strongest supporters and also Arab countries convinced that Mossad is everywhere.

Meir Dagan's going off the reservation on Iran, at least to some extent, could be the beginning of some interesting maneuvering behind the scenes.

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