It’s not clear what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had in mind with his perplexing appointment of outgoing deputy Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to the complex and sensitive post of national security adviser. Senior officials who have worked with Cohen in the last few years praised his human relations and organizational skills, but were puzzled by the appointment.
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Cohen is an experienced intelligence officer and a gifted handler of agents, who was marked as a star early in his career. However, he spent most of his years at the clandestine organization in recruiting and managing agents. He is a brilliant spy and operations manager, but is not a strategist, a diplomat or an expert in foreign relations.
Cohen has very little experience in any of the issues that take up the daily schedule of a national security adviser, such as the peace process with the Palestinians and the settlements issue, relations with the European Union or the Western nations’ dialogue with Iran, as well as with matters such as Israel’s nuclear policy or understandings with the U.S. Administration.
The main question regarding Cohen is this: which one of the roles that he filled in the past qualifies him for the role of national security adviser? Does he have a deep political understanding that will enable him to formulate a strategy for the prime minister? Does he have the diplomatic experience that will facilitate his managing of the sensitive dialogue with the White House? Does he have the capacity to prepare Netanyahu for meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Russian President Vladimir Putin? The answer is not so clear.
The outgoing adviser Ya’akov Amidror, also a former intelligence man, came to this post with extensive experience in various areas such as the Defense Minister’s Bureau, the academic world and the business sector. Even with that experience, he required many months to become fully acquainted with the role and its complexities. He learned and developed throughout his term, becoming an effective and powerful adviser.
Cohen’s settling in period is expected to be much longer than Amidror’s. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has still not managed to find a replacement for his political adviser Ron Dermer, will be the one paying the price of Cohen’s tuition, as well as paying the price for having a bureau lacking in advisers with experience in foreign relations.
Beyond these issues, Cohen’s appointment reeks of a job placement. Cohen spent the last few weeks making the rounds at different politicians’ bureaus looking for a senior position. For example, he interviewed with Yuval Steinitz for the post of director general at the Ministry of Intelligence and International Relations.
The impression is that Cohen is looking for an interim position while waiting out the two years until the departure of Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, after which he hopes to get the job. Netanyahu, who imposed Cohen on Pardo as his deputy in the first place in order to groom him for the top spot, has provided Cohen with the solution as national security adviser.
Netanyahu did not invent this tactic. When Ehud Barak was prime minister he appointed then Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Uzi Dayan as the national security adviser on his way to becoming the top general. But instead of becoming the IDF chief of staff, Dayan left Netanyahu’s bureau frustrated and angry, on his way out of the army. Cohen beware!
Out of nine national security advisers who have served so far, Cohen will be the sixth to come from the intelligence community and the fourth from the Mossad. People of similar backgrounds serve as national security advisers in countries such as Egypt, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. In Western democracies such as the U.S., Britain, Germany and France, these positions are held by senior diplomats or well-known personalities from the academic world.
This pattern says something about the culture of governance in Israel, and indicates the confusion that prime ministers are subject to when trying to differentiate between intelligence and policy. Cohen will most likely be able to inform Netanyahu on events taking place under the surface in Egypt, Syria and Iran. The question is whether he will be able to tell him what on earth to do about it.