Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed veteran Mossad agent Tamir Pardo to lead the spy agency in a period likely to focus on Israel’s covert war over Iran’s nuclear program.

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Pardo, 57, previously unknown to the Israel public due to the secretive nature of his post, replaces Meir Dagan who retires in December after eight, often controversial, years on the job.

The announcement comes on a day when Israel’s arch-foe Iran blamed the Mossad for killing a top Iranian nuclear scientist and acknowledged its nuclear activities had come under cyberattack, a move widely blamed on Israel.

Mossad never comments on claims it conducted specific operations, but is widely believed to be waging a covert war to prevent Tehran developing nuclear weapons, something Israel considers an existential threat.

Iran denies pursuing weapons, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Mossad’s work also focuses on battling groups Israel designates as terrorists, particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all supported by Iran.

Netanyahu expressed confidence that Pardo would rise to the challenges as the head of one of the most vaunted espionage agencies.

“Pardo has rich experience of dozens of years in the Mossad and he is sure that he is the right man to lead the organisation in the next few years given the complicated challenges that face the state of Israel,” his statement said.

The statement did not release any biographical details on Pardo, but Israeli media reported that he served under Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, in the 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda, where Israeli commandos freed passengers aboard a hijacked Air France jet. Yonatan Netanyahu was killed in the mission.

Pardo replaces Dagan, whose tenure was widely credited with several high profile operations, but also tinged with scandal over the killing in Dubai of Mahmud al-Mabhuh, a top militant of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Dubai police chief Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan has said he is 99 per cent sure the Mossad was behind the killing and that, if so, Dagan should face prosecution.

Khalfan released security footage of the agents to have participated in the attack which earned Israel reprimands from Western countries like Britain, Ireland and Australia over the use of fake passports in the hit.

But Dagan has also had reported successes including the 2008 car bombing in Damascus which killed Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughnieh.

Fingers also pointed to the Mossad after the 2007 bombing of a suspected desert nuclear site in Syria and a December 2008 air raid on a truck convoy in Sudan allegedly carrying Iranian-supplied weapons destined for the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.