Meir Dagan, the Israeli soldier and spymaster who was widely credited with setting back Iran’s nuclear program through covert and daring operations as the director of the Mossad intelligence agency from 2002 to 2011, died on Thursday in Tel Aviv. He was 71.
The cause was liver cancer, a spokesman for the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center said. Mr. Dagan underwent a liver transplant in Belarus in 2012, but he faced complications after returning to Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in praising Mr. Dagan, referred to a well-known and chilling photograph showing Mr. Dagan’s grandfather kneeling and humiliated before Nazi soldiers shortly before he was killed in the Holocaust.
“Meir was determined to ensure that the Jewish people would never be helpless and defenseless again,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “and to this end he dedicated his life to building up the strength of the state of Israel.”
Soon after he retired as Mossad chief, Mr. Dagan (pronounced dag-ANN) publicly criticized Mr. Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, over their policy of preparing for a military option against Iran’s nuclear program. He told an audience at a conference in Jerusalem that a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations would be “a stupid idea.”
Mr. Dagan argued that military action might not achieve all its goals and that it could lead to a regional war. His criticism became more personal in a statement to journalists after the military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the director of the Shin Bet internal security agency, Yuval Diskin, both left office as well.
“I decided to speak out because when I was in office, Diskin, Ashkenazi and I could block any dangerous adventure,” Mr. Dagan was quoted as saying. “Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi and Barak,” he added, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname.
While in office, Mr. Dagan oversaw a number of reported operations that were hailed as great successes in Israel.
One was a joint American and Israeli effort that produced the Stuxnet computer worm, a program that appeared to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. It had been tested at Israel’s heavily guarded Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev, according to experts.
Though he never spoke publicly about his role, Mr. Dagan was central to the Israeli part of the program, conferring regularly with senior members of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Ultimately, Israel did not use its military option. And last summer, the world powers reached a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program, which Israeli leaders consider an existential threat to their country.
In 2007, Mr. Dagan provided American officials with the pictures that proved that Syria had been building a nuclear reactor with North Korean help. The Bush administration declined to bomb it, but after much debate Israel destroyed it in an air raid in September of that year.
Bald and stocky, Mr. Dagan was regarded by reporters as humorless, though always eager to court them, and readily outspoken. He criticized Israel’s political leaders for failing to seriously pursue a peace initiative with the Palestinians, and last year he again lashed out at Mr. Netanyahu shortly before the general elections returned the prime minister to office for a third consecutive term.
“How did it happen that the country, stronger by far than all the countries in the region, is incapable of carrying out a strategic move that will improve our situation?” Mr. Dagan said at a rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv calling for political change. “The answer is simple: We have a leader who is fighting one campaign only, the campaign for his political survival.”
Having emerged from the shadows, Mr. Dagan said at the rally, he was “not a man of speeches” or a member of any political party. “The only party I am loyal to every day is the state of Israel,” he said.
He was born Meir Hubermann on Jan. 30, 1945, in Kherson, in what is now Ukraine, according to his official biography on the Mossad website. He was the son of Holocaust survivors. Other reports said he was born on the floor of a train as his parents traveled between Poland and the Soviet Union.
He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1950, two years after the state was founded, and enlisted in the Israeli military in 1963. He served in the paratrooper brigade and fought as a company commander in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
Rising through the ranks, he was tasked by Ariel Sharon, the general who became prime minister of Israel, to establish a special unit to combat militancy in the Gaza Strip in the 1970s. He was later appointed commander of the South Lebanon region. He retired from the military in 1995 with the rank of major general.
Mr. Dagan then joined Israel’s counterterrorism bureau under Prime Minister Shimon Peres and was later appointed head of the bureau. He returned to the military in the late 1990s, joining the general staff and serving as a special adviser to the chief of staff.
It was Mr. Sharon who appointed Mr. Dagan to lead the Mossad, where he served as director under three prime ministers: Mr. Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Mr. Netanyahu.
Israel does not acknowledge responsibility for operations abroad, but Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization, blamed Israel for the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior commander of the group, whose car exploded in the heart of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
In a more embarrassing episode on Mr. Dagan’s watch, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, accused Israel of killing one of its senior officials, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel room. Israelis initially celebrated the 2010 operation, but then the Dubai police released images showing some of the 17 people suspected of being in the hit squad bumbling about in almost comical disguises.
Yaakov Perry, a lawmaker and former chief of Shin Bet, described Mr. Dagan as “one of the builders of the foundations of the theories of the war against terrorism, of special operations in the military and within the intelligence community.”
Mr. Dagan’s survivors include his wife, Bina, and three children.
Marking Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day in April 2010, the popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot printed the photograph of Mr. Dagan’s grandfather on its cover.
Speaking at the Tel Aviv rally, Mr. Dagan’s voice broke with emotion as he linked his personal connection to the Holocaust with his lifelong mission of trying to safeguard Israel.
“During all the years of my service,” he said, “I carried with me from place to place the photograph of my grandfather taken a moment before he was murdered by the Nazis. I swore that that would never happen again. I hope and believe that I have done everything in my power to keep that promise.”