Ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan Silenced in Iran Nuclear Debate in Israel

11/06/2012 04:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013
  • Dan Raviv CBS News correspondent based in Washington; author of 'Spies Against Armageddon'
  • Yossi Melman Author, 'Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars'

One of the most important debates on the world scene has gone silent. For more than a year, commentators and politicians worldwide had been discussing: How can Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program be stopped, and should Israel be stopped from bombing Iran?

The power of election scheduling is hugely impressive. In both the United States and Israel, political considerations have dwarfed what seemed until recently the most urgent, pressing strategic questions on earth.

With Americans voting November 6, and Israelis having their national election on January 22, the debate is mute.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in recent years has been an enthusiastic saber-rattler, does not see any advantage in thundering about Iran's nuclear program right now. His most recent big statement came at the United Nations in New York in late September, when he held a cartoonish diagram of Iran's bomb-making progress but truly illustrated a time line that seems to delay any military action until mid-2013.

However, if Netanyahu finds that his opponents start bashing him over failures -- or harsh realities -- in providing for the social and economic needs of Israelis, the prime minister may well wish to change the subject. To portray himself as the only true tough guy in town, he would probably start beating the war drums again. That could occur anytime before January 22.

The defense minister in his lame duck cabinet, Ehud Barak, is leading his own small political party and has changed his tone on Iran. Barak is more obvious now in his reluctance to see Israeli warplanes and missiles strike Iran, but in truth Barak will say almost anything for political advantage -- so one does not know what he would do, in the remotely possible scenario that he might return to the post of defense minister.

One man who might have kept the Iran debate alive is Meir Dagan. After serving as Mossad director from 2002 to 2010 and redirecting the priorities of Israel's foreign espionage agency -- featuring secret, daring sabotage and assassination missions inside Iran -- Dagan became surprisingly vocal on the subject of Iran's nuclear program.

In December 2010, just before his departure from the Mossad, Dagan invited one of us, Yossi Melman, and a few other Israeli journalists for an unprecedented briefing at the agency's headquarters north of Tel Aviv. The spy chief claimed credit for delaying the Iranians' work on uranium enrichment and bomb development. And Dagan clearly spoke out against the military option, quite specifically against plans being laid by Netanyahu and Barak.

Within months, Dagan was speaking more frequently about how "stupid" it would be for Israel to launch air force sorties and missiles at Iran. In 2012, he was interviewed in English on CBS's 60 Minutes and warned that Iranian retaliation would make daily life unbearable in Israel. Dagan said Iran's leaders are "rational," in a way, suggesting that they could be persuaded to halt their nuclear work.

The implicit message also was that more covert action could continue to be effective: anything from assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists (actions which our book Spies Against Armageddon clearly ascribes to the Mossad) to cyberwarfare such as the Stuxnet worm which damaged computer-controlled uranium centrifuges in Iran. (Our book reported that the cyberwarfare, probably including more computer viruses, was and is a joint U.S.-Israel project.)

Dagan, as luck would have it, has been diagnosed with liver cancer. According to people close to him, he sought diagnosis and possible treatment at the Sloane Kettering cancer center in New York City. Apparently a liver transplant was recommended, but no donor was available. He found the same dead end in Germany and in India.

In Israel where, naturally, a former chief of the Mossad would have some VIP priority (as much as anyone might), no donor was available. Medical policies in Israel discourage liver transplants for any patient older than 65, because senior citizens are not generally likely to benefit -- or survive -- for long after a transplant. Dagan is 67 years old.

An appropriate donor (meaning a "match" who had very recently died) was located in Belarus. Dagan flew to that former Soviet republic, without any public announcement, for the liver transplant. For some reason, the country's President Alexander Lukashenko, considered to be Europe's last dictator, decided last month to reveal that the former Mossad chief was in that country recovering from a transplant.

Sources in Israel said Dagan was "struggling for his life," and, indeed, liver cancer is almost always extremely serious and recovery from a liver transplant uncertain. Dagan has returned to Israel and is hospitalized in a medical center with guards and almost no publicity.

People close to him continue to be very worried. Four weeks after the surgery, they say he is not showing good signs of recovery. They describe his condition as "stable" but add that he still battling to survive.

He might have been a powerful voice, during an Israeli election campaign when fateful decisions demand to be discussed. Although not running for parliament, he would have spoken out against the notion of Israel bombing Iran. Meir Dagan is, however, unavailable.

Behind the scenes, Israel's military and intelligence agencies are surely preparing for all possibilities -- for any orders that any Israeli prime minister might issue to them.

We know this is a perennial statement, but here goes: Something big has to happen in 2013, in one direction or another. Either Iran will give in to the sanctions and military threats and suspend its uranium enrichment, or the United States -- whether under Barack Obama or Mitt Romney -- will exercise its military might.

Those are the two possibilities most mentioned by Israelis, but they know that Israel may conclude in 2013 that it has to go it alone and do what it can to damage Iran's nuclear program.

CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman are co-authors of a new history of the Mossad and Israeli security, Spies Against Armageddon, and the best seller Every Spy a Prince. They also blog at IsraelSpy.com.