Israeli Politicians Describe Incoming Mossad Chief as Netanyahu's Pet

This week's prime-time announcement by the PM of Yossi Cohen as the spy agency's new head was itself full of intrigue and suspense – and not a small dose of humiliation for the institution.

An illustration of incoming Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. An Israeli flag is on the backdrop.
Amos Biderman

Yossi Cohen is not one of the regular guests in this column, which deals with politics. The same goes for the National Security Council, whose head he will remain until he assumes his post as director of the Mossad and becomes Israel’s top secret agent. But when someone punches a clock for two years in the most political bureau in the country alongside our No. 1 politician – by dint of his professional capacity and strong personality – it would take an almost superhuman effort to preserve one’s political virginity. Some fallout (to change the metaphor) is bound to stick to you, even if it’s not to your benefit and not at your initiative.

Much has already been said of the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to inform the nation about its new Mossad chief (who is accountable directly to the prime minister) on Monday night. Never before has a new head of Israel’s espionage agency been appointed like this: with the televised announcement at 8:15 P.M., the prime of prime time, the buildup of tension as though it were the last episode of “Dallas” and we were about to discover who shot J.R., and then the repeated delays, Netanyahu-style, to 8:30 to 9:00 and then 9:06 – all this bringing us back to that weird and nerve-racking evening when the present coalition was announced to the Knesset.

Then came the climax, the announcement of the winner – though not before we got another concentrated dose from Netanyahu of “ISIS – Islamism, lying religious incitement ... In Paris I met with many leaders, the Mossad will continue to assist me to develop relations with various countries, it was a tough choice.”

In short, it was the essence of politics. Netanyahu, a proficient patron of prime time, succeeded in making not only himself ridiculous but in tarnishing and humiliating the Mossad and the position of its chief, a serious post that deals with life-and-death issues. The lust of this prime minister, who refuses to give interviews, for more exposure (sterile, controlled and on his terms) and for another five minutes of unedited “live broadcast” time, without his having to confront those nagging journalists – knows no bounds. At the conclusion of his statement Monday night, Udi Segal of Channel 2 News threw a question at him. Netanyahu stopped for a moment, gave him a mocking look over his left shoulder, and left. Segal can jump in the lake.

Some reporters raised the possibility that the 50-minute delay was due to post-11th-hour doubts that assailed Netanyahu about his choice. Certainly something happened in the “aquarium,” the mysterious black hole of the premier’s bureau, during the interim. Maybe one of those who was passed over raised a ruckus? Maybe someone called Netanyahu to tell him something? Another speculation is that earlier in the evening – in other words, at 8:15, the original time set for the announcement – his choice had been someone other than Cohen, and he changed his mind.

More clues, anyone? Well, on that very evening and at exactly the same time, hundreds of female members of Likud were waiting in Ramat Gan for Sara Netanyahu to light the second candle of Hanukkah. Mrs. Netanyahu was late (sorry, delayed) by two-and-a-half hours. She told the exhausted women that she had heard about her husband’s decision “on the radio.” A very likely story.

Bibi and Sara have never been caught displaying excess consideration for ordinary people. For them a schedule is not even a recommendation; it’s a nuisance. But two-and-a-half hours is one heck of a delay. In retrospect, there were those who wondered, and not by chance, whether there was a connection between the prime minister’s minor tardiness and his wife’s major tardiness.

That question remains unanswered. What is known, however, is that two hours before the name of the chosen Mossad candidate was announced, Yossi Cohen’s photo and a brief bio of him appeared in Likudniks’ WhatsApp groups, intimating that the decision had been made. It emerges, therefore, that the industrious spies in the ranks of Likud knew the identity of the new chief at 7 P.M., while senior commentators were voicing learned opinions in TV studios and even conjectured and hinted that Cohen, apparently, was actually not the man.

Bibi’s darling

About half a year ago, NSC head Cohen spoke with a senior political figure. Their conversation dealt with a sensitive and discreet matter relating to a complex aspect of Israel’s foreign relations. Cohen was sent by Netanyahu to clarify to the political figure a detail relating to something the politician was dealing with. Cohen told the man that the Mossad, too, was occupied with the affair. “Fine, you’re the next Mossad head, no?” the politician asked. “Yes,” Cohen replied, according to the politician, “I have Netanyahu’s promise.”

I spoke this week with several politicians who have been in and out of the premier’s bureau in the past year or so. All of them without exception reported the same impression: Cohen was Netanyahu’s darling, his favorite, his right-hand man, his personal emissary on secret globe-trotting missions. “Yossi will talk to you” was often Netanyahu’s parting remark to interlocutors in cases where some detail was still unresolved. Another favorite utterance was “Get Yossi.” When Bibi met with MKs, including from the opposition, he customarily summoned Cohen, sometimes two or three times in an hour, to explain a point or shed light on a particular issue.

“Whenever I saw them together I said to myself that Bibi just loves the guy,” related someone who met with the prime minister. “Bibi looked at him lovingly and warmly. My feeling is that he likes his character, his style, the way he dresses, the prestige and nobility he projects and the way he expresses himself, but above all the absolute loyalty with which he served him.”

In the past two years, Cohen definitely surrendered his soul to Netanyahu. He did so with his cool elegance and not in the sweaty, screaming, militant manner that characterizes most of the leader’s gophers, both in his party and his bureau. Cohen’s concluding public performance was his testimony last week before the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee, which was deliberating the subject of the natural-gas deal. He was unimpressive, to put it mildly. He declaimed mechanically the familiar messages, consistently harping on the phrase, “in our Middle East.” Some committee members came away with the feeling that Cohen’s heart was not in the words he was speaking. However, as MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) – who welcomes his new appointment – noted, there is no way he’d have been given the job if he’d dared express a different opinion on an issue that for Netanyahu is the be-all and end-all.

Another event that MKs recall occurred in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in the period after the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers. Cohen’s deputy briefed the committee on the agreement, but in addition to a dry, factual presentation they also got a heaping dose of scorn and disdain for U.S. President Barack Obama and the American officials who had struck the deal. That unexpected “bonus” was strictly political and highly unprofessional. MKs, and not necessarily from the opposition, wondered whether it was the place of the National Security Council, as a supposedly impartial security body, to echo the angry spin emanating from Netanyahu’s bureau.

According to a minister who has belonged to the security cabinet for the past two years, during that period, Cohen “provided the perfect buffer for Netanyahu against external interference. He has an ability to square circles. He’s a human-relations whiz. He was able to accommodate frustrations of MKs and ministers so that the prime minister would not have to deal with them. He is not opinionated. In meetings of the security cabinet he never floored us with an original or especially subversive opinion. But he made order in the chaos he found in the security cabinet.”

In the same vein, more or less, another senior figure relates that ahead of official trips abroad by the premier and his wife, Cohen would come to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and sit with Mrs. Netanyahu to discuss the planned routes, meetings and the like.

Coming back to where we began: As Cohen told a certain figure, he apparently did have Netanyahu’s promise that he would succeed Tamir Pardo as head of the Mossad. But in the past few weeks something went awry. As the date for the decision approached, Cohen apparently noticed a change in the way the wind was blowing. Netanyahu’s attitude toward him projected something chilly, reserved, indecisive. Reports surfaced in the media that a search was underway for external candidates for the Mossad’s top post. It’s would be typical of Netanyahu to “surprise” everyone, to come up with some Jacob Frenkel or Stanley Fischer, and leave the media speechless, unprepared, flabbergasted, bewildered and battered.

About a month ago, Cohen asked Netanyahu what was happening with the Mossad. The answer drove him wild. “You are one of the candidates,” the prime minister told him. Cohen asked whether he should start preparing to embark on a new course. “You are one of the candidates,” was the answer again. Cohen told an interlocutor that Netanyahu looked down as he spoke. Confidants of the NSC head say that during those weeks he was edgy, frustrated and disappointed. He told ambassadors he met that he was examining business opportunities. Unusually, Cohen did not accompany Netanyahu on his visit to Washington to meet with Obama a few weeks ago. Instead, he went on a trip to Thailand with his family.

It was only 24 hours or so before the announcement that Netanyahu told Cohen the job was his. People who work with him noticed the change of mood immediately. Now he was calm and collected. The danger was over, the tension had dissipated. Bibi had made his decision. The “model” was about to step onto his coveted runway.

The media’s occupation with Cohen’s good looks and stylish attire – he looks like an Italian lover from a romantic movie of the 1970s – says something about Israel, the country with the sloppy, neglected, scruffy look of the A Team. A civil servant who shows up in a suit and tie, his white shirt ironed, and groomed to perfection, looks like a visitor from another planet.

Streams of consciousness

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also, and secondarily, Diaspora affairs minister, performed what’s known in these parts as a “worthy” act by visiting the Solomon Schechter School of the Conservative movement, in New York this week. He also posted a clip of the visit and of the reception he was given on his Twitter account, gushing at the “love of Israel, love of Judaism” that the students displayed.

In tolerant, enlightened, Israel, that tweet drew outrage and vilifications – mostly in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) media, but also in so-called “Hardeli” (a fusion of Haredi and national-religious) circles, which characterizes the extreme right wing of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party.

The height of the absurdity, though this should no longer surprise anyone, came in the form of a reprimand to Bennett by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. “He should not have visited there, this is behavior unacceptable to klal Yisrael,” Lau said in a radio interview, referring to the Jewish people as a whole. He added some sermonizing by conjecturing that the wayward kippah-clad minister had not “consulted with a rabbi” (such as Lau himself) before giving “a certain form of recognition to a certain audience.” Bennett responded with a reprimand of his own: “A public leader is duty-bound to bring Jews closer, not to banish them.”

The Haredi Lau has the reputation of being a non-extreme religious leader – relatively speaking, of course. He’s the son of another former chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, who has a similar image. The son was elected to his post in July 2013 with the support of Netanyahu and Likud, United Torah Judaism and Shas. Bennett backed Rabbi David Stav, the head of the moderate Tzohar rabbinical organization. Obviously Lau bears Bennett a grudge, that’s only human. But precisely because of that, he should have said nothing. Since when do rabbis scold cabinet ministers who are doing their duty?

Bennett has a long account to settle with the Chief Rabbinate. In the previous government, he set out to make changes and failed. Orthodoxy won. Bennett considers the ultra-Orthodox establishment a corrupt, rotten group, a money machine that creates jobs and is concerned mostly about salaries for functionaries. The level of Judaism he found at Solomon Schechter is far higher than in any state-religious school in Israel. He was overwhelmed. As Diaspora affairs minister, he said this week, his role is to embrace Jews from all streams, in order to reduce assimilation and the abandonment of religion. In the past government, as minister of religious services, he established Ezrat Yisrael at the Western Wall – a third prayer area where men and women can worship together. He also joined forces with the justice minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, to pass a conversion law that was then repealed by the current coalition. Now he’s visited a Conservative school for the first time and after being bawled out by Rabbi Lau, has lashed back.

Who hasn’t said a word about the subject? Who’s been silent in the wake of Rabbi Lau’s defamation? Netanyahu, that’s who. For him, American Jewry is a wallet, sometimes also a lever to put pressure on the administration. The coalition is more important, and he wouldn’t dream of riling stalwarts such as Arye Dery or Yaakov Litzman.