The next head of Israel's Mossad espionage agency will be David Barnea, whose appointment was cleared for publication Monday following consultations among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the outgoing Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen.
On December 15, Netanyahu gave notice of Barnea's appointment to replace Cohen, who will be stepping down on June 1 after five and a half years at the helm of the Mossad.
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Barnea, who is in his 50s, lives in the Sharon region north of Tel Aviv. He did his military service in the elite Sayeret Matkal special operations force. About 30 years ago, he enlisted in the Mossad, where he became a case officer. Following a training period, he joined Tzomet, the spy agency's division responsible for locating, recruiting and handling agents and where he spent his entire career other than a two-year stint as deputy head of Keshet, the division responsible for monitoring and infiltrating targets. He was appointed deputy head of the entire Mossad in 2018.
Senior Mossad officials have described Barnea as a reformer who has been open to structural, organizational and professional changes and someone who is not set in his ways and is not conservative.
In Tzomet, he recruited agents all over the world relating to matters of the highest priority to the Mossad: Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shi'ite movement. Former senior figures in the espionage agency have called him honest and fair.
In large measure, his career path has been similar to that of Yossi Cohen, whom he is succeeding. Cohen also began as a case officer and later become the head of Tzomet. One of the major operations attributed to the Mossad over the past year, when Barnea was deputy director of the Mossad, was the daring assassination on November 27 of the head of Iran's military nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
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The assessment of senior officials in the Mossad and elsewhere is that Barnea will again make the agency a low-profile organization that avoids the public eye and the personal coverage that characterized the Yossi Cohen era. One of Barnea's main tasks will be presenting to Netanyahu, if he remains prime minister, with an accurate intelligence picture, even if it is not to Netanyahu's liking.
Also a priority will be improving the relationship between Israel and the United States during President Joe Biden's term, and between the Mossad and the Central Intelligence Agency in particular.
It can be assumed that the agenda of the Mossad, which has a staff of about 7,000, will not change. The effort to collect information about the Iranian nuclear program and to foil its military aspects, if the need arises, will remain the top priority. That's in addition to intelligence collection, thwarting activities and special operations against Hezbollah in Israel and elsewhere, intelligence collection on Islamic Jihad groups' plans for attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets, protection of Jewish institutions around the world and even closer ties with other espionage agencies, countries and organizations with which Israel doesn't have diplomatic relations. The Mossad currently has such ties with 150 parties.
Although the Mossad is an espionage agency whose core mission is collecting information through agents – human intelligence – over the past decade and a half, it has increasingly made use of technology and cyberwarfare. It appears that the trend toward what has been dubbed HUGINT – a combination of human intelligence and signal intelligence – will continue.
Shortly after he takes office, Barnea intends to appoint someone who can only be identified as E. as his deputy. E. is a mechanical engineer by training, whose operational activity has mostly been in Keshet.
On May 31, a day before Barnea is due to take office, a farewell ceremony is expected to be held at Mossad headquarters in Yossi Cohen's honor, attended by several hundred guests.
The lifting of the publication ban on Barnea's appointment follows a petition filed by this reporter against the Israeli military censor on the grounds that there is no security justification for the ban, which the petition states is in violation of a 1996 legal precedent. According to that precedent, the identity of the Mossad chief is a matter of public knowledge from the time of the espionage agency leader's appointment.