JERUSALEM - The newly retired head of Israel's fabled Mossad spy agency has turned his sights toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, repeatedly criticizing the Israeli leader's approach to Iran and the Palestinians.
After earning a reputation as a fearless operator against Israel's enemies, now Meir Dagan is showing public concern over how Israel's government deals with them.
Dagan's statements, rare for a man known for discretion and secrecy during a three-decade career in the intelligence service, have startled many Israelis.
In a speech at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday, Dagan issued a stern warning against attacking Iran, saying a strike would risk unleashing a region-wide war and only encourage Tehran to push forward with a nuclear program that is widely believed to be aimed at developing weapons. Iran denies that.
"The war won't be against Iran, but will be a regional war," he said, according to a transcript obtained by The Associated Press. "I recommend that the prime minister not decide to attack."
Dagan also lamented the dire state of peace efforts with the Palestinians, which have been frozen for months.
"There needs to be an Israeli peace initiative," he said. "If we don't offer things and don't take the initiative, we might be put in a corner. Given the choice between put in a corner or taking the initiative, initiative is better."
He suggested that Israel accept a nine-year-old peace initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia, offering peace with the Arab world in return for a full withdrawal from all territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
With the comments, Dagan took a swipe at two cornerstones of Netanyahu's foreign policy.
Israel considers Iran its most dangerous threat, citing Tehran's nuclear program, its ballistic missile development, repeated references by the Iranian leader to Israel's destruction and Iran's support for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Netanyahu has said that international sanctions should be the preferred way to halt the Iranian nuclear program, but he has repeatedly said that the military option should not be ruled out.
"The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation," Netanyahu said in a high-profile address to the U.S. Congress last week.
In the same address, Netanyahu laid out his vision for peace with the Palestinians. He presented no new ideas for breaking the deadlock and instead repeated a series of red lines on borders and security demands he has set for any future deal. Netanyahu rejects a withdrawal to Israel's 1967 lines.
Netanyahu is right. If military options are ruled out, then Iran knows it can proceed without fear of attack - unless someone lied when ruling out military options.
But, more importantly, the 1967 "borders" are indefensible.
As long as there is no attack from or through Jordan, and as long as there is no infiltration into the West Bank making potential terrorist acts from there more likely or more dangerous, then there is no need for defensible borders there.
Of course, if men were angels, this question would not need to be addressed at all.
But, in the real world, there exists the possibility that a foreign power could attack through Jordan, regardless of what the Hashemite dynasty there feels about it. Furthermore, instability in Jordan, which we have seen during this Arab Spring, could bring to power there a government hostile to Israel. Finally, even under current circumstances, Jordan is unable to adequately secure the border with the West Bank; thus, with the potential for infiltration from anywhere in the world through Jordan, across the Jordan River, and into the West Bank, one cannot rule out any kind of terrorists or terrorist weapons unless Israel controls the Jordan River Valley. From the Executive Summary of Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace dated 2008:
Israel's peace treaty with Jordan is a vital strategic asset. Nonetheless, though Israel hopes the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan will remain in power for many years, its eventual replacement by a new and potentially more hostile regime, supported by Jordan's Palestinian majority, cannot be ruled out.
With that thought in mind, we consider what it means to have a defensible eastern border. From Israel's Requirement for Defensible Borders by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror:
Due to its location and topography, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) has played a vital role in Israel's national security since it was captured by the IDF in 1967. The West Bank is relatively small, covering 2,123 square miles (5,500 square kilometers), but it is situated immediately adjacent to the Israeli coastal plain where more than 70 percent of Israel's population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity are located. Moreover, the West Bank is comprised largely of a north-south mountain ridge that dominates vital Israeli infrastructure along the coast, including Israel's international airport, high-tech companies, and most of the major highways connecting Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. Rainwater flows down the slopes of this mountain ridge into underground aquifers in western Samaria that provide Israel with approximately 30 percent of its water supply.
In short, a hostile military force located in commanding positions along the West Bank could pose a threat to the center of gravity of the State of Israel, cripple or even bring to a standstill its economic life, and put at risk large portions of its population (see Map 6). The same cannot be said about other territories that Israel came to control as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Sinai is adjacent to the Israeli Negev. The Golan Heights dominates the Sea of Galilee and northeastern Israel. Military losses in these areas would seriously undermine Israeli security, but the State of Israel would continue to exist. Incapacitating and overrunning the coastal plain would terminate Israel's very existence. This is the primary factor affecting the strategic importance of the West Bank for Israel from a military perspective.
Another aspect of the strategic importance of the West Bank emanates from its role as a barrier protecting the vulnerable coastal plain from armed attack from the east. The West Bank mountain ridge may reach only 3,000 feet at its highest point, but to its east is the Jordan Rift Valley which is the lowest point on earth, dipping down to 1,200 feet below sea-level. This means that the West Bank mountain ridge forms a 4,200-foot barrier facing eastward that is relatively steep for an attacking ground force (see Map 7). The distance from the Jordan River to the apex of the mountain ridge is roughly 8 to 12 miles (the entire West Bank is about 34 miles wide). Given that Israel deploys mostly small, active service units that are numerically inferior to the sizable standing armies of its neighbors, the eastern slopes of the mountain ridge provide the only practical alternative for a defense line for the Israeli army while it completes its reserve mobilization to deal with an impending threat.
The West Bank mountain ridge contributes to Israeli security in other ways. Israel's military control of the Jordan Valley allows it to prevent the smuggling of advanced weapons
to Palestinian terrorist groups. Israel has only to patrol an area that is 62 miles long as opposed to the 1967 line which is 223 miles. While the Jordanian armed forces seek to halt the flow of illegal weapons across the Jordanian kingdom, they do not always succeed. Hizballah is active in trying to move illegal weaponry from Lebanon through southern Syria.
Additionally, the West Bank is crucial to Israel's air defense. During a period of elevated alert, Israel can deploy its air defense systems along West Bank hilltops in order to intercept enemy aircraft from forward positions and not from the heavily populated coastal plain. Shortrange radar and early-warning systems situated on the coastal plain would have their line-of sight blocked by the West Bank mountain ridge (this is not a problem for missile-interception radars). Therefore, for years, Israel has deployed these facilities on the high ground of the West Bank. It goes without saying that if the airspace above the West Bank was in hostile hands, Israel would have no warning time to intercept attacking aircraft. Today, it would take three minutes for an enemy fighter bomber to cross from the Jordan River over the West Bank and Israel (42 miles) to the Mediterranean. If Israel had less than three minutes to react, the provision of adequate air defense by means of fighter interceptors or anti-aircraft missiles would be doubtful.
Now for the rest of Ex-Israeli spymaster raises concern about prime minister, says attack on Iran will unleash war:
Dagan's criticism has been noteworthy because he has a reputation as a hard-liner toward Israel's Arab and Muslim adversaries. Foreign press reports have attributed a number of bold operations to the Mossad during Dagan's eight-year term.
Among them were the assassination of a Hezbollah mastermind in Syria in 2008, the assassination of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai in 2010, a mysterious Israeli airstrike in Syria in 2007 that destroyed what was believed to be a nuclear reactor and the release of a computer worm that crippled Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel has never confirmed its involvement in any of these operations.
"He is one of the most right-wing militant people ever born here, somebody who ate Arabs for breakfast, lunch and dinner," wrote Ben Caspit, the chief columnist for the Maariv daily. "When this man says that the leadership has no vision and is irresponsible, we should stop sleeping soundly at night."
Caspit claimed two other recently retired security chiefs expressed similar reservations in private. He offered no proof.
Since leaving office early this year, Dagan has become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the government, implying that leaders are pushing the country toward war.
Just days after his retirement, an Israeli newspaper quoted him as saying Israel "should not hurry" to attack Iran. Last month, he was quoted as saying a military strike on Iran would be "stupid."
In Wednesday's speech, Dagan said he knew it is inappropriate for public officials to express their opinions. He is currently head of Israel's Ports Authority.
"But I will express my opinion anyway," Dagan said in Wednesday's speech. "I am not prepared for it to be on my conscience that there will be a repeat of what happened in 1973."
He did not elaborate, but Israel suffered heavy losses in the 1973 Mideast war after leaders ignored warnings from intelligence chiefs and were caught off guard by invading Syrian and Egyptian armies.
Netanyahu's office refused to comment.
The speech dominated Israeli newspapers, radio broadcasts and newscasts on Thursday. While some commentators said Dagan was delivering an important wake-up call to the establishment, many officials said he had crossed a line.
"It damages state security. There is no need to give the other side directions of thought, activity or readiness," said Cabinet minister Yossi Peled, a former general who once commanded Israel's northern front. "I am sure he is very worried and is acting out of good intentions, but I still think there are things that shouldn't be declared in public."
A career intelligence officer, with a reputation for being hard on Arab threats to Israel, is (against etiquette) voicing public opposition to the articulated, legitimate concerns of Israel's Prime Minister, thus undercutting the Israeli government's position on a matter that has caused some very public disagreement between the Israeli government and the Obama Administration.
Now, what's up with that?