After eight years at the helm, Mossad chief Meir Dagan on Thursday bid farewell from the people who accompanied him throughout his nearly decade-long tenure.
Dagan's secretary handed him his famous pipe and a pouch of tobacco for the very last time. He embraced her and his bodyguard, and was escorted to a vehicle waiting outside.
At that very moment, the organization marked an end of an era.
Dagan left behind many devoted supporters and a significant number of enemies, but even they agreed that during his tenure Dagan led the organization to operational achievements that could only be dreamt about eight years ago.
Dagan focused mainly on the Iranian issue, including its nuclear program and subversion of moderate regimes in the Middle East as well as support for terror.
As such, the Mossad chief placed Iran on top of the organization's priority list – a strategy that was officially confirmed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and reaffirmed by his successors Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.
So where does the Iranian nuclear program stand with the departure of Dagan? As early as a year-and-a-half ago the Mossad head told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Islamic Republic will not be able to obtain nuclear weapons before 2014.
According to recent estimates, the completion date might be postponed by another year or two, even if western attempts to thwart the program prove futile.
The 'Dagan method'The Iranians deal with a significant number of internal issues, which hinder their ability to manage complex technologies. These include political pressure on Tehran, international economic sanctions and isolation, which in turn prevents them from obtaining necessary equipment for the development of the nuclear program, such as metals, computers and machines.
Along with all these difficulties, documents published by whistleblower website WikiLeaks reveal that domestic ethnic and social tensions are being used in order to undermine the ayatollahs' regime.
The international pressure and high economic price Iranian citizens have to pay for the nuclear program has stirred a debate among senior officials, on whether the high cost is worthwhile compared to the benefits the government would gain from obtaining the nuclear technology.
Many within Israel claim that Mossad's action during Dagan's days, along with mounting international pressure on Tehran would achieve much better results than a military operation.
Student protest in Iran (Archive photo: AFP)
Some also fear the steep political and economic costs such a move might inflict on Israel. Hezbollah is armed with an arsenal of rockets and missiles that surpass that of 90% of world countries.
While experts are split over whether or not a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities can cause significant damage to its nuclear program, such a strike would undoubtedly lead to a counter strike against Israel, which apart from Hezbollah may include Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and perhaps even Syria.
These experts' basic assumption is that every country that obtains nuclear warfare would have second strike capabilities, and thus be able to execute its plan sooner or later – even if attacked.
Avoid war at all costJerusalem and Washington are in concurrence over the facts and intelligence estimates vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program. Though the United States does not consider the Iranian program as an immediate threat, it nonetheless comprehends Israel's concern over its potentially devastating consequences.
Will the United States attack? Experts point to very slim chances; especially due to the fact that Washington is already neck-deep in three wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – which have taken a heavy human and financial toll on the Americans.
Over the years, many different views vis-à-vis peace and war with Damascus have been attributed to Dagan by political analysts. However, what has been made clear by information leaked from government meetings during the 2nd Lebanon War, is that the Mossad chief believes Israel should avoid a war with Syria by all cost.
Nevertheless, Israel should not forego its essential interests, especially those related to the imminent threat it is facing from the Iran-Hezbollah axis.
Top priority. Nuclear reactor in Bushehr (Photo: AP)
The Mossad seems to take Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, quite seriously. The Shiite terrorist organization's ability to inflict damage on Israel's home front, and the capability of both organizations to carry out suicide attacks, has been a cause for major concern within the Israeli intelligence community – perhaps even more so than Syria's military might.
This is why during Dagan's tenure, the Mossad had a key role in shaping the positions of the current prime minister, as well as its predecessor, who both refused paying the high price required in order to secure the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit.
Dagan refused to free 450 leading terrorists to the West Bank, for fear that many Israelis would eventually pay with their lives.
Minimal political damageSignificant operations attributed to the Mossad during Dagan's term in office include the assassinations of Imad Mughniya, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Muhammad Suleiman and Iranian nuclear scientists.
Israel has never claimed responsibility for any of the aforementioned operations, but Hezbollah, Hamas and Tehran firmly insisted that the intelligence agency was behind them.
The assassination of Mughniya severely curtailed Hezbollah's operational capabilities, and the organization has yet to find a worthy replacement. Instead, it splitted his responsibilities between four different group members.
Al-Mabhouh's assassination sparked an international media storm, during which Israel was accused, among other things, of passport theft – leading to diplomatic crises with some of its closest allies.
However, looking back, it seems the political damage Israel sustained was fickle and minimal at most, and has not jeopardized the cooperation between Mossad and other intelligence agencies.
Eight years on, Dagan can be content. So can the group of people working under his command, which he proudly mentioned at any given opportunity.
It also failed to return the remains of spy Eli Cohen from Syria, and was unable to shed new light on the fate of those who went missing during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub. These will now become the responsibility of new Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo.
Ron Ben-Yishai and Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report
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