"President Shimon Peres once told me that in case I was asked to predict the future, I had better offer a forecast for 50 years onward. To begin with, [Peres explained,] there is always the chance that no one will remember what you said and besides, even if there is still someone around who remembers, it isn’t at all certain that you will be there to answer him," former head of Israel's national intelligence agency [the Mossad] Meir Dagan recounted opening his address at the "Talking Heads" forum organized by the Israeli daily business newspaper Calcalist in Tel Aviv on [July 9].
Dagan, who retired from office about a year ago, has moved since to the energy business and he is currently serving as chairman of Gulliver Energy Ltd., which is active in the area of prospecting for natural gas, oil and uranium. Regardless of his career change, Dagan enlarged on the upheavals in the Middle East, referring among other issues to the Iranian nuclear program and international terror.
"I can tell you, putting it cautiously, that the events surrounding us are not over yet and that the State of Israel is facing a far from simple challenge, as we cannot tell what is in store for us. Each of the neighboring countries is torn by its own internal rifts. There is no ethnic or religious homogeneity in any of these countries and each has its own unique balance of power. This situation holds opportunities for Israel, but it also poses various risks with which we will have to cope," Dagan told his audience.
"It doesn't matter how the vote is conducted. What matters is who is counting the votes"
According to Dagan, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the regional reality and its economic repercussions on Israel. "Let's start with what is erroneously called 'the Arab Spring.' Whoever coined the term must have been inspired by the [revolutionary] events that took place in Europe in 1848 [known as the Spring of Nations], at a time when liberal ideas were spreading throughout the world. However, the truth is that there is no liberal message in this case. In the end, it all boils down to a power struggle over positions of dominance."
According to Dagan, the common feature characteristic of the events we have been witnessing in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and even Syria is the fact that all these countries have Islamic societies. These countries are populated by various tribes typified by nepotism, preference of loyalty over experience and competence and deliberate prevention of social mobility. "One of the leaders in the region once told me that 'it doesn't matter how the vote is conducted. What matters is who is counting the votes.' You hear of new [governmental] institutions and courts being established there, and comparisons are drawn between us, here in Israel, and what's going on there. However, demonstrations are but external manifestations and may signify completely different things [here and there], and parliamentary elections do not necessarily testify to the existence of democracy," Dagan noted.
A central role in the revolutions that took place in Arab countries has been reserved to the exemplary organization of the opposition to the regime. "In countries where control was seized by force, the ruling elite have been forced to step aside. In all these countries there is a single organized grass-roots opposition with a power base in each and every village – these are the Islamic movements. They have gained a foothold in the population and can directly communicate with people on their way to the mosque. [At the same time,] the state's involvement in the social process has diminished."
"In the short range, the military threat to Israel has faded and it is unlikely to re-emerge in the next 3 to 5 years"
So, where does it all lead us? According to Dagan, the military threat to Israel has faded for the time being. "There are opportunities and future risks. In the short range, the military threat to Israel has faded and it is unlikely to re-emerge in the next 3 to 5 years. Still, I cannot disregard the long range, where the Islamic ideology is liable to translate an action against Israel into military moves as well. However, at present, the prospects for such a development seem to be rather slim. Egypt has to find a solution to its economic crisis, which is globally anchored. They have to resolve the issue of their reliance on American aid as well as the [interrelated] problems of declining revenues and the vanishing tourism industry. As to Syria, the crisis there has to do with the decades-long confrontation between the different sects and groups in the country rather than with the personality of [Bashar] Assad. I believe that the war there has not come to its [decisive] conclusion yet, and as far as Assad is concerned, he is either riding on the tiger's back or is going to end up as the tiger's prey. Jordan is interested in the peace agreement no less than Israel. The Arab League has never in recent years been less nationalistic. And Saddam Hussein is no longer around."
However, Dagan says in a critical note,regardless of the transformations the region has been undergoing, the decision makers in Israel fail to take advantage of the situation to derive political benefits. "With respect to the Palestinian challenge, we are at a critical and problematic point. The Arab Spring has skipped them, while we have failed to reach an arrangement. The Palestinian society is divided by the deep internal dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the really serious problem is that I cannot identify any figure there that would be able to muster mass support once Abu Mazen retires. In the political arena, the impasse vis-à-vis the Palestinians is used as a major pretext for exerting pressure on Israel, as it is believed in the European Community that the problem can be solved through Israel, and that's where we have failed."
Enlarging on the issue, Dagan further said: "You have to remember that for 20 years now, in fact, since the beginning of the Oslo talks, we have been engaged in negotiations with them. However, to this very day no solution has been found. From time to time, we managedto pass the ball over to their side of the field, but we are not doing even that now, which is problematic, both politically and tactically."
Dagan argues that the Palestinians have already formulated their political conception of what they want from us – a [sovereign] state and demarcation of borders. However, so far, Israel has failed to do the same. "We had prime ministers here, in Israel, who were willing to go to great lengths [to achieve peace], but nonetheless, we have failed to reach a solution, and when the society is split up, it's hard to set in motion any political process. As for me, my feeling and my own personal opinion is that we are not playing it right. We must start a process, and we may perhaps do it via the Arab League. We are currently enjoying relative calm since Arafat, who instigated the violence, at least in part, is no longer around. Abu Mazen has decided that this [violence] is not his way, as the cost is too heavy. At the same time, the Hamas standing has been strengthening. The problem is not going to disappear of its own accord, and ignoring it while dealing with other issues is not going to help us any. It is bound to stay there and constantly weigh on us. Israel had better formulate a coherent policy, and it has a golden opportunity to do so now that the Arab world has become less nationalistic."
"Iran is not running for the nuke, but it is cautiously advancing towards achieving it"
The Iranian issue preoccupied Dagan while he was still in office [as the Mossad head], and upon his retirement he expressed his unequivocal stance on the issue and sharply criticized the notion of attacking the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran, claiming that it would be disastrous for Israel. "Iran is not running for the nuke, but it is cautiously advancing towards achieving it. It is interested in acquiring military nuclear capability as an 'insurance policy' against intervention by foreign countries, the same way it happened in North Korea and Pakistan. It is a political tool designed to grant them an advantageous position in the region. They are cautiously advancing towards their goal as they are well aware of the cost involved. They are speeding up schedules, but they are not running for it full steam ahead, the way it is being described here [in Israel]."
According to Dagan, the economic reality in Iran, where two [different] bodies – political and religious – are managing the financial system and one kilogram of meat sells for [as high as] 20 dollars, inducesits regime to manipulate oil prices, to the consternation of the international community, so asto control the country's stream of revenues. "Iran considers itself a regional power. Under the current circumstances, such regional balance of power is problematic, and Israel should not lead the anti-Iran camp. The Iranian challenge is not an easy one, for any of those concerned, including Saudi Arabia and the United States, which are apprehensive of the scenario where a single power controls all oil reserves in the world. There is a chance to influence the regime [in Teheran] in other ways and there is no magic formula that can solve it all. There are various tools and means and if they are employed in unison,we may cope with the threat without resorting to radical solutions. An attack on Iran would only provide the Iranians with a good enough excuse to accelerate their nuclear program, for the purpose of self-defense," Dagan said, assessing the situation.
As far as the terrorists are concerned, a Jew is the same as an Israeli
The last issue Dagan talked about in his address is international terrorism, which from time to time raises its head. "There is terror on a number of levels, and one of these is the Shiite terror operated by Hezbollah. Luckily for us, in recent years they suffered a series of failures. However, if we open a front vis-à-vis Iran, which has capabilities of hitting every location anywhere in Israel, Hezbollah will no doubt jump on the bandwagon and 'join the party'."
Referring to the Islamist terror, Dagan said that it had developed an impressive dexterity at fanning the flamesin the confrontation with Israel and cooling them down on demand. "All the [terror] organizations use the Israeli occupation as an excuse for their attacks on Jewish targets the world over. It is another kind of anti-Semitism. It even goes as far as to boycott Israeli-made goods, and one of the attendant phenomena is the negation of the very existence of the State of Israel and the equation of Jews, wherever they are, withthe State of Israel. Unfortunately, the countries most exposed to the threat of terror are also the most developed countries in Europe, like Britain, France and Germany. However, immeasurable as the challenge may be, the prospects [for solution] are similarly incalculable, and if we effectively exhaust them, we may yet embark on new and heretofore unknown directions," Dagan noted in conclusion.