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Under a New Leader, Mossad Takes the Fight to the Terrorists

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On a stormy night in 1950, 5-year-old Holocaust survivor Meir 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” terrorist tactics.

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.

Accusing the convicts of being Mossad agents — a charge neither confirmed nor denied in Jerusalem — New Zealand suspended diplomatic ties with Israel.

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 Yatom.

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 Tenet.

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 Dayan said.

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