Ilana Dayan has the first interview former Mossad director Meir Dagan has ever given to Israeli TV. For many Israelis, it must be a bit like hearing Marcel Marceau speak the first word of his career, as Dagan has a reputation for being exceedingly laconic and unwilling to speak publicly or to the press. He’s changed his view over the past year since he’s left the agency and faced the very real prospect of an Israeli war against Iran.
Dayan is a superb interviewer who both brings out the best in her interviewees by being sympathetic to them, but also by challenging them in a dramatic fashion. For example, at one point she says to him: Barak says we have to act within the next nine months or Iran will have the bomb. You say we have till 2015. What if you are wrong? What if we wait as you suggest and they get the bomb and the Jewish people face a Holocaust? We will then have a situation we never experienced, in which we will face a nation of madmen with a nuclear weapon.
Dagan’s reply is quite interesting. He disagrees with her and says: Iran acts as a rational state. It takes into account the implications of its actions [and those of others]. Therefore, it’s not in a mad dash to get a nuclear weapon. Dayan responds: are you telling me that Ahmadinejad is a rational man [in Hebrew, she calls him a “rational goy” which is an odd, slightly racist locution]? Dagan answers: I think he is a sophisticated individual, but his audience is not an Israeli or western one. The Iranians are sophisticated, quite wise, and we should not make the mistake of dismissing them.
He says that for Israel enter into a regional war with its eyes open, this [going to war] should be necessary only if we are attacked or the sword is “beginning to cut the meat off living flesh.” To Dayan’s question whether or not Israel can successfully fight a war against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria, he concedes that it could. But he adds: what will happen the day after? We have to think about the high price we will have to pay for this victory. To Barak’s foolhardy claims that there will be no more than 500 Israeli dead after such an attack, Dagan responds that the level of destruction, of paralysis of normal life in Israel, the ability to conduct an orderly society for any length of time, the price we will pay in human lives [lost] will be higher.
Dagan fought in the 1973 War and its impact is seared into his consciousness. He remembers Israel’s leaders who told their soldiers there would not be a war. And they were wrong. Dead wrong. The cost in human life was enormous. This is what leads Dagan to tell Israel today that its leaders are not immune from making fatal mistakes.
There is also a great deal of discussion of the veteran Israeli spymaster’s philosophical approach to war. Given how much blood Dagan has shed himself and ordered others to shed, it may be hard to believe that he has a conscience about it, that he regrets it and hates war with every fiber of his body. But I came away from this interview being impressed with the man, that while he has chosen a path I would never choose, that he has made a good faith effort to discharge his task honorably, or as honorably as possible under the circumstances.
At the end, Dayan asks him whether if it were possible for him to erase all memories of war from his consciousness, both the good and the bad, would he do it? He answers: very willingly. Given the level of self-deception and outright lying of which most politicians are capable these days, it’s easy to say that Dagan is posturing for the camera or angling for a political career. But I felt him to be genuine, a real, complicated, tormented, conflicted human being. Someone real, unlike the charlatans and schemers who he advised and who now face the decision of whether to go to war against Iran.