Meir Dagan, Israel's spymaster and assassin-in-chief, dies aged 71

Meir Dagan, Israel's spymaster and assassin-in-chief, dies aged 71
The former Mossad chief, responsible for 'special operations' against 'foreign terrorists', was a fierce critic of Netanyahu's plan to attack Iran.
3 min read
17 March, 2016
Dagan was a leading light in Israel's military complex [Getty]

Meir Dagan, the former Mossad spymaster, has died aged 71 after a prolonged struggle against cancer.

Dagan, who reached the rank of army major-general after a career in warfare - he fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars, led an undercover commando unit in the occupied Palestinian territories, and commanded a tank brigade in the Lebanon war - was also known for being a vegetarian and amateur painter.

Counter-terrorism adviser to Binyamin Netanyahu's first administration, later National Security Adviser to Ariel Sharon, he was appointed director-general of Mossad, Israel's intelligence and "special operations" agency, in 2002 - a role he filled until 2011, as the peak of the military violence of the intifada slowly began to give way to the economic strangulation of the occupied territories.

Dagan was reported to have stepped up assassinations on foreign soil of suspected "terrorists", despite Israel having no death sentence among its domestic laws.

The killing of Hizballah leader Imad Mughniyeh, and an airstrike of a suspected nuclear plant in Syria were widely attributed to Dagan's agents and influence. The infamous Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian nuclear centrifuges was also believed to have been produced under his watch.

As well as Iranian nuclear scientists being targeted for "extra-judicial killing" during his tenure, the agency's work was exposed in 2010 when Dubai officials published CCTV pictures of an alleged Mossad hit squad believed to have killed a Hamas weapons-maker. The team reportedly cloned passports of Jews who had emigrated to Israel and used them to enter the emirate, where they are understood to have killed the man in his hotel room and made the death appear as a heart attack.

The death of the alleged Hamas operative was one of many for which Dagan was believed ultimately responsible.

"Meir was one of the greatest of the brave, creative and devout warriors that the Jewish people ever had," said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. "His devotion to the state of Israel was absolute."

Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck

In his retirement, Dagan became chairman of Gulliver Energy, which went on to drill for gold outside Eilat and - after Dagan spent much of his career searching for nucear material in Iran - mine the Dead Sea for uranium.

He also clashed with Netanyahu about any potential attack on Iran, openly telling reporters it was "a stupid idea". The Iranians were "a very rational regime", he was quoted as saying. Even before he stepped down as Mossad chief, he briefed reporters in direct contradiction of the prime minister's bombast over the potential threat posed by Tehran, saying: "Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck."

Days before the 2015 Israeli Knesset election, he again spoke out against Netanyahu, telling a crowd in Tel Aviv "I worry about our leadership", urging voters to install a government to "serve the public and not itself".

Following Dagan's death on March 17, Netanyahu said he had been "a brave soldier and commander who greatly contributed to the country's security in Israel's wars... A great warrior has died".

Following a 2012 liver transplant in Belarus - Israeli criteria state that a patient must be no older than 65, and the then-67-year-old Dagan relied on the help of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to receive the operation - Dagan continued to struggle with his health.

He is survived by his wife and three children.