Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, passed away at the age of 71 Thursday in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital.
Dagan was a decorated general who became Israel’s top spymaster, before becoming a vocal critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.
He had suffered from health problems for several years and the reported cause of death was cancer. He is survived by his wife and three children.
“Mossad head Yossi Cohen, the heads of departments and the members of the Mossad express deep grief and express their condolences to the Dagan family,” a statement from the Mossad’s spokesman read.
He was appointed head of the Mossad in 2002 and led the agency for eight years before retiring in 2011.
During his tenure, the Mossad reportedly carried out a number of operations abroad, including the assassinations of top Hamas and Hezbollah operatives in Dubai and Damascus respectively, according to foreign media reports.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” at Dagan’s death, calling him a “great warrior.”
In a statement his office released Thursday morning, Netanyahu hailed Dagan as a “daring commander who contributed much to the country’s security during Israel’s wars, as counter-terrorism adviser and as head of the Mossad.”
“In the eight years he headed the Mossad it undertook bold operations that broke ground and barriers.”
President Reuvin Rivlin, who is currently in Moscow for a state visit, hailed Dagan as a “man of counsel, a man of wisdom, a loving man and a man beloved in his roughness, a leader and a man of the people.”
A retired military general, Dagan served for 32 years as an IDF officer, reaching the rank of major general. He is credited with leading some of the IDF’s most daring missions, and served in the Six Day War, Yom Kippur War and First Lebanon War.
In 1970, then GOC Southern Command Ariel Sharon appointed him head of of the Rimon anti-terror unit, which carried out commando raids in Gaza.
After leaving the army in 1995, he served as counterterrorism adviser to the government during Netanyahu’s first term, and as a national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Dagan was born Meir Huberman in 1945 in the USSR to parents fleeing the Holocaust, and moved to Israel in 1950. He lived in Tel Aviv.
Much of his worldview was formed by his family’s experiences during the Holocaust, according to those who knew him well.
“Meir Dagan remains, at heart, a refugee,” Israeli reporter Ilana Dayan told JTA shortly after he assumed the leadership of the Mossad.
On Thursday, Netanyahu characterized Dagan as someone determined to ensure that the people of Israel will no longer be powerless and defenseless, and who therefore dedicated his life to fortifying the Jewish state.
“A photo showing his grandfather degraded by Nazi soldiers, shortly before he was murdered in the Holocaust, was always before his eyes,” Netanyahu recalled.
Rivlin recalled that Dagan had asked him, on the last Holocaust Remembrance Day, to recite the names of his murdered family members and to present the photo of his grandfather at an event in the Knesset.
“And that’s what I did. Meir Dagan, the greatest among giants, as he was called, in the eyes of many symbolized the Holocaust and rebirth,” Rivlin said.
Dagan had a BA in political science from Haifa University, according to a Mossad biography.
Politicians and figures across the political spectrum mourned Dagan.
“The State of Israel, its citizens and Jews around the world owe a great deal to Meir Dagan for his activities over many years,” said Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud). “He made an enormous contribution to the security and the strengthening of Israel in the face of threats near and far.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said Dagan was a laureate of the Hebrew University’s Chaim Herzog Prize, which was named after his father, adding that Dagan was also worthy of the Israel Prize for his great contributions to Israel’s security.
“Meir was an Israeli hero who bravely fought our enemies and those who wish us ill, yet at same time he fought for peace with the same determination,” Herzog said.
Former Shin Bet chief MK Yaacov Perry (Yesh Atid) hailed Dagan’s “originality of thought” and his creativity. “Meir was a pillar of the defense establishment, the army and the intelligence community,” he said. “He was a fearless fighter against terrorism and helped lay the foundations for the way Israel fights terror and carries out intelligence operations. He was a smiling man, a friend, and an original adviser.”
Former foreign minister MK Avigdor Liberman pointed out that many of Dagan’s achievements for the State of Israel will only be able to be published many years from now, if at all.
Liberman said he first met Dagan in 1996 when he recruited him as a counter-terrorism adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office. Dagan was a “brave man who embodied the courage and strength of the Israeli defense establishment,” Liberman said.
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), a former Mossad operative who served before Dagan headed the agency, called Dagan a hero, noting that he knew how to lead soldiers on the battlefield as well as Mossad operatives in their clandestine activity.
Dagan was a keen analyst of Israel’s political leadership, Livni went on, alluding to his criticism of various Netanyahu governments. “He stated his positions without fear out of a deep responsibility for the future of the country. I loved and respected him very much, and this was felt by everyone who worked with him.”
In recent years, Dagan had been one of the most prominent critics of Netanyahu’s hard-line policies regarding Iran and the Palestinians.
He vocally opposed the prospect of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Netanyahu is said to have supported, famously calling a Netanyahu speech on the matter “bullshit.”
He has also warned that Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians risked turning Israel into an apartheid state.
“For 45 years I have served this country — all of them dedicated to safeguarding its security as a Jewish and Zionist state. I don’t want that dream to disappear,” Dagan told a Channel 2 reporter in 2015, reacting to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iran deal.
Dagan, who only voiced criticism publicly after retiring, also said he had feared Netanyahu would launch “a military operation” against Iran during the period when he served under the prime minister, despite the fact that all the heads of the security services opposed such an action.
Even if successful, said Dagan, the operation would not have set Iran back “for very long.”
In 2012, Dagan traveled to Belarus for a liver transplant and was hospitalized with serious complications after the operation, which was performed by French and Israeli doctors flown in.
American and German doctors were asked to operate on him, but “no one wanted to carry out a liver transplant operation on a former head of the Mossad,” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said at the time.