Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has taken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to task for remarks that, Dagan claims, constituted a gratuitous and risky provocation of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
At a meeting of Tel Aviv University’s Business-Academic Club on Wednesday, Dagan was asked to comment on Netanyahu‘s remarks to soldiers earlier that day to the effect that any attack on Israel would be met with a strong and decisive response.
“When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk,” Dagan said, quoting Eli Wallach’s oft-cited line from the Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and going on to explain that Israel should not goad the desperate Assad as he tries to contain the civil war in his country.
“The reality around us is mutable and volatile. We need to be suitably prepared,” Netanyahu had told the soldiers, who were practicing maneuvers on the Golan Heights. While stressing that he was not challenging anyone, the prime minister warned that “no one will attack the State of Israel without a strong and decisive response.”
“To threaten Assad, in the circumstance that he is in, seems to me to be problematic,” Dagan said in response, going on to confirm a series of recent reported Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria. “Bashar Assad is in a situation where Israel has attacked him a few times, which means that as far as he’s concerned, he has the legitimacy to respond to Israel. In addition, he has the problem of the civil war: If he finds himself in a corner he may decide to escalate Syria’s conflict with Israel.”
“That’s not to say he wants to start a war, but just to respond with fire directed at military targets,” Dagan continued. “Technically, it’s possible. He would be cautious, but there is no need to put him in a situation where his honor is hurt and we are agitating him.”
Still, Dagan speculated that ousting Assad would be to Israel’s advantage as it would dampen Iran’s influence in the region and weaken Hezbollah.
During his address to troops, Netanyahu, a former commando, dispensed advice on the correct attitude in combat.
“The battlefield is a realm of the unknown and one must have the will to break the adversary and, at the moment of truth, to instill in him the fear of death,” he said. “That’s how you win a battle, and if they try us we will know how to best them.”
Dagan has in the past also accused Netanyahu of war-mongering over Iran. In April the former spymaster said that the prime minister’s frankness over the prospect of striking the Islamic Republic could provoke Tehran into launching a preemptive attack.
Dagan, along with other security chiefs, reportedly refused in 2010 a request by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who was defense minister at the time, to prepare Israel for a solo strike on Iran.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed Dagan as director of the Mossad spy agency in 2002, a position he held until 2011.