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Mossad chief Dagan stirs the pot

TEL AVIV, Israel, July 7 (UPI) -- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to extend the tenure of former army Gen. Meir Dagan as head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, by a year has got the nation wondering what clandestine missions the man the liberal daily Haaretz calls "the angel of destruction" will think up next.

The extension of Dagan's mandate for an eighth year, ending in December 2010, has stirred up Israel's intelligence establishment at a time when its various branches -- Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the General Security Service, Israel's internal security agency better known as Shin Bet -- are focusing on what Iran will do.

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Dagan's longevity as director of the Mossad matches that of former chief Yitzhak Hofi, who headed the service from 1974 to 1982. Haaretz sees that as a "worrying precedent."

Columnist Amir Oren noted on July 3 that during Hofi's final year, when Israel invaded Lebanon, its northern neighbor, to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization, "the Mossad fell into the trap of siding with the Lebanese Christian Phalange and being drawn into the First Lebanon War.

"Dagan's desire for an eighth year -- as some think -- because of his anticipation of developments connected with Iran, is a gamble that could end badly."

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Dagan was appointed head of the Mossad in 2002 by his old army buddy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the mastermind of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that mired the Israelis down in a war that continues to this day.

In 2004 Dagan was given special responsibility for coordinating all intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program, a move that seriously offended Military Intelligence, which had been handling that task.

But, as Oren pointed out, Israeli intelligence's track record of divining what actions Iran and its fundamentalist leadership will take over the last 30 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been somewhat flawed.

"Military intelligence experts have been proven wrong and even disgraced, for example, because of their assessments prior to and following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war," Oren wrote.

"Their predictions, in briefings before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, were undermined by the Iranians who initially did not collapse in the face of Saddam Hussein's onslaught (in September 1980), and in the end made do with a bad situation and signed a cease-fire agreement. Then came the failed assessments during the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars.

"This month the 'Gulf curse' hit Meir Dagan … who made a belittling remark about the intensity and significance of the protests against the regime in Tehran."

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With Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, re-elected by a huge -- but widely disputed -- majority in June 12 polling, the Israeli leadership's long-held view that a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear program may be necessary has gained immense traction in recent days.

With Iran in turmoil, Netanyahu and his right-wing associates are champing at the bit. This is deepening concern about what Dagan will do next.

The portly reserve major-general first came to prominence in the Gaza Strip in the 1970s when Sharon was head of the army's Southern Command.

Dagan led a special unit whose members disguised themselves as Arabs to assassinate scores of Palestinian militants, pacifying the turbulent occupied region.

He has a reputation for risky operation, but is not seen as too hot on the more sober pursuit of assessing the intentions of Israel's adversaries.

However, it was his fire-eating reputation that prompted Sharon to bring Dagan out of retirement to galvanize the Mossad at a time when it was demoralized by internal turf battles and a series of botched operations.

Dagan "is said to have returned the agency to its glory days," says the Jerusalem Post.

He has notched what his peers see as several major successes. Most of these remain shrouded in mystery, but there have been reports that key scientists in Iran's nuclear program died in mysterious circumstances.

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More in the public domain, however, was the discovery of what Israel says was a North Korean-built nuclear reactor in western Syria and its subsequent destruction by the Israeli air force in September 2007 and long-range air strikes in Sudan against alleged shipments of Iranian arms being smuggled to Hamas in Gaza in January and February 2009.

But possibly the most spectacular operation widely attributed to Dagan's Mossad was the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah's legendary operations chief, Imad Mughniyeh, in the heart of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

What next, indeed.

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