TEL AVIV The Mossad, Israel’s shadowy counterintelligence agency, is revving up for a relentless campaign against what its tough-minded chief, Meir Dagan, regards as the most serious threats to the Jewish state large-scale terrorism perpetrated by regional extremists, and danger they may acquire weapons of mass destruction.
The campaign will be waged by means of state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering equipment, including space satellites, which have been launched independently by Israel, as well as shrewdly executed operations by agents able to avoid compromising themselves or implicating their handlers.
Mr. Dagan’s strategy has filtered beyond Mossad’s top-secret headquarters, but the precise tactics may never become known. Even if they are deduced, described or revealed by parties at the scenes of impact, Israeli officials will neither confirm them nor accept responsibility.
Like his political patron and wartime commander Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Mr. Dagan, who was born Meir Huberman in 1945, is relatively fond of using biblical writ, partly because Hebrew is his native language and because his generation was taught to identify with the ancient Israelites.
One of their mottoes as combat commanders both hold the rank of major general can be found in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs.
The King James version renders it as: “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war.” (Proverbs 24:6) But a more literal translation from the original Hebrew, favored by Jewish scholars, advocates “stratagems” or “ruses” rather than mere “counsel.”
That verse always has inspired modern Israel’s armed forces as well as Mossad operatives. It guided the Mossad’s abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.
Eichmann, as an SS officer in World War II, organized the Holocaust’s mass deportations of European Jews to death camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries. Mr. Dagan’s parents survived the genocide and he was born immediately after it ended.
Mr. Sharon chose Mr. Dagan largely because of his outstanding combat record during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when he was the first officer to cross the Suez Canal under Mr. Sharon’s command.
Recalling that and many other feats of courage, Mr. Sharon wanted Mr. Dagan to take over the Mossad before the anticipated U.S. military onslaught against Iraq.
Amir Oren, military and intelligence analyst for the daily Ha’aretz, said, “Twelve years ago, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, then-Capt. Dagan … initiated far-reaching operations deep inside Iraq.”
In 1973, he volunteered to serve in Mr. Sharon’s division, which was deployed in the western Sinai Peninsula. At one point, Mr. Dagan and his elite unit surrounded and killed Egyptian fire-control officers, said Mr. Oren.
A specialist in the Mossad who insisted on anonymity said Mr. Dagan did not conform to the standard image of an Israeli general.
“He is laid-back, prefers the privacy and isolation of his home in Rosh Pina, Upper Galilee, and likes to spend his time there as a sculptor.
“Upon retirement from active duty, he teamed up with another demobilized senior officer and spent an entire year trekking across Asia if not on foot then by every other conceivable conveyance, animal or mechanical.”
Daring operations, especially behind enemy lines, were termed Mr. Dagan’s strength, the specialist said.
“He was ruthless despite his soft-spoken manner and his incongruous appearance short, stocky and with a slight limp. He doesn’t look like a commando, but his style is patterned after Great Britain’s vaunted [Special Air Service].”
Mr. Dagan’s involvement in anti-terrorist operations dates from the early 1970s, when he headed an army undercover unit known as Rimon and killed dozens of Gaza Strip Palestinian militants on Israel’s most-wanted list.
By the late 1990s, when he served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on counterterrorism, Mr. Dagan implemented Israel’s “targeted killings” of suspected terrorists by hand-held weapons, air-to-ground missiles, explosive charges set off by remote-control devices and other lethal means.
Commenting on these aspects of his career, London’s daily Guardian said “the Palestinians have cruel memories of Gen. Dagan.”
In his current capacity, Mr. Dagan has been giving the highest priority to operational activity while downgrading the Mossad’s traditional concentration on research, analysis and what its personnel call “soft intelligence.”
Soon after taking office as Mossad’s chief, he divided it into two wings, said Yossi Melman, an Israeli author and journalist who has co-written several books about Israeli intelligence.
“One division engages in operations and the other in management,” Mr. Melman wrote in Ha’aretz. One is concerned with information-gathering and the other, known as “tsomet” (crossroads), is responsible for fielding agents and equipping them with the most sophisticated gear available.
Insiders said Mossad was demoralized before Mr. Dagan took over, partly because several major field operations had gone awry in Switzerland, Cyprus and Jordan, and then were discussed in the international and local news.
The fact that his academically oriented predecessor, Efraim Halevi, had a penchant for back-channel diplomacy rather than direct action also is regarded as a source of frustration and dissatisfaction in Mossad ranks.
Mr. Dagan was one of architects of Israel’s special relationship with the embattled Maronite Christians of neighboring Lebanon.
He favored the arming and training of the Maronites’ “Lebanese Forces” in the mid-1970s, and backed Maj. Sa’ad Haddad and his Free Lebanon militia, which controlled southern Lebanon until the Israeli invasion of 1982 and later became the South Lebanon Army under Gen. Antoine Lahd.
“He regarded the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops ordered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak as a personal affront,” a former member of Israel’s liaison team said.
“And he was deeply concerned about the loyal SLA officers and men who fled with their wives and children in the face of the oncoming Hezbollah guerrillas and sought refuge here.”
Israel’s adventures in Lebanon are almost as much a trauma for Mr. Dagan as they have been for Mr. Sharon. Their frustrating experiences there are cited by Ha’aretz’s Mr. Oren.
“Mr. Sharon expects Mr. Dagan to infuse the Mossad with heavy doses of aggressiveness, duplicity and fiendishness,” he wrote in Ha’aretz. “These have been Mr. Dagan’s personal characteristics throughout his career.”