Some critics of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are trying to discredit his speech last week to a joint session of Congress with a new talking point: former Mossad director Meir Dagan’s recent claim that Netanyahu knowingly misled Congress. They are unlikely to get very far with this argument, however, since Netanyahu’s statements track closely with assessments by many U.S. experts. Moreover, based on similar statements by Dagan over the last few years, I believe his criticism of Netanyahu’s speech is a case of a former government official politicizing national security and is not reflective of the views of Israeli intelligence.
During an interview broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 on Friday, Dagan said Netanyahu’s contention that Iran could build a nuclear bomb in less than a year was “bulls***.” He also disputed Netanyahu’s assertion that Iran’s missile program could allow it to deliver a nuclear warhead to “every part of the United States.” Dagan countered that Iran’s missiles “cannot reach the U.S.,” adding that Netanyahu knows this. He also made similar statements and questioned the prime minister’s leadership at a huge anti-Netanyahu rally held yesterday in Tel Aviv.
Dagan has been saying things like this since 2011, apparently because of his opposition to an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and his political differences with Netanyahu. In June of that year, he said an Israeli attack on Iran was “a stupid idea” and that Iran was years away from a nuclear bomb. In April 2012, Dagan told 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl that he viewed the Iranian regime as “rational” and that he believed it would back down from its nuclear-weapons ambition if faced with choosing between the program and its own survival.
Mossad analysts and Dagan sang an entirely different tune during briefings to a congressional delegation to Israel in October 2010 (in which I participated). At the time, they told us the threat from the Iranian nuclear program was very dire and that Iran had enough enriched uranium to produce several nuclear bombs within a few months. This was a conclusion many American experts had also reached and one that tracked with my understanding of Iran’s nuclear program as a staff member with the House Intelligence Committee. Dagan led the briefing and was in full agreement with his analysts. He said nothing about Iran being several years away from a nuclear bomb or the Iranian mullahs being rational actors.
Dagan began to speak out against Netanyahu’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program in the spring of 2011, a few months after he retired. Some said at the time that he made these statements to advance his political career. Others believed he was intent on stopping an Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
In his recent remarks on this issue, Dagan again focused on stopping an Israeli attack, which he said is “the last thing we need.” He also said an Israeli airstrike would not set back the Iranian nuclear program “for very long.”
While Dagan may harbor serious reservations about the wisdom of Israel’s attacking Iran, his criticism of Netanyahu’s statements about the Iranian nuclear program don’t hold up. The prime minister’s assessment of the Iranian threat is one shared by many U.S. think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Science and International Security, and the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Netanyahu’s speech was also consistent with the views of a growing bipartisan majority in Congress.
Dagan’s criticism of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress proves that former Israeli government officials sometimes play politics with national security just as their American counterparts do. While this won’t stop Obama officials from citing Dagan to discredit Netanyahu, it will hopefully lead some in the news media to mention Dagan’s track record of politicizing the issue when reporting on this story.
— Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and former staff member with the House Intelligence Committee, is Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs for the Center for Security Policy. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.