Many of the Mossad’s 7,000 employees – certainly the senior ones at the highest level – are eagerly awaiting the retirement of their commander and chief, Yossi Cohen, in a month’s time.
Cohen, who met with U.S. President Joe Biden and also CIA Director William Burns in Washington last week, is expected to continue with his farewell events over the next month. The highlight will be a party scheduled for the final week of May, apparently in the spacious hall of a new building at Mossad headquarters in Glilot, just north of Tel Aviv. Invitations (without an exact location) have already been sent out by email.
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The sense of eagerness about Cohen’s departure does not stem from operational or intelligence failures. In fact, the opposite is true: During Cohen’s tenure – which was extended to five-and-a-half years – the Mossad had a number of impressive achievements, not only in the fight to delay and disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, but in gathering intelligence on Hezbollah, Syria and ISIS’ activities all over the world.
The reason for the high expectations is that in Israel’s spy organization, people are sick and tired of Cohen’s behavior, his cult of personality; his close ties to the media and wealthy Israeli and foreign businesspeople; the loyal service he provides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and the suspicion that has arisen more than once that his considerations are political.
Cohen will turn 60 in September. He was born in Jerusalem to a religious Zionist family, was a member of the Bnei Akiva National Religious Party youth movement and served in the army’s Nahal infantry brigade.
At 24, without an impressive military or security record, he joined the Mossad in 1984 and completed its cadets’ course. Upon graduation, he was sent to serve as a case officer in Tzomet – the division responsible for identifying, recruiting and operating agents. One of the cadets with him was the renegade Victor Ostrovsky, who was kicked out and in revenge wrote a book smearing the Mossad and his fellow cadets, including Cohen.
Ilan Mizrahi, one of Cohen’s bosses and later the agency’s deputy director, spoke about him recently on Channel 13 News. He was full of superlatives and said that back in the early stages, the Mossad realized that Cohen was “destined for greatness.”
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Cohen himself did not hide his aspirations. A former senior Mossad official mentioned recently how he heard from him, even when he was filling junior positions, that he believed that one day he would be the agency chief. He spent most of his career in Tzomet. He stood out for his elegant clothes. His colleagues used to mock his affectations and used them to play tricks on him, even during operations.
He served in the Mossad station in Western Europe, and after that was promoted and became the head of two other branches overseas.
In the 1990s, he took a break to go into business. He joined up with a young man who had left the Mossad and was considered to be a wunderkind, to found a digital ad firm called Image ID. Cohen was the marketing manager.
Even back then he had a talent for public relations. In that respect, he recalls to a great extent Netanyahu, who, after finishing his degree at MIT, worked as a sales agent for the Israeli Rim furniture company.
When Cohen realized that Image ID was not going anywhere, he returned to the Mossad, where he stood out once again. His creativity and cunning, as in the organization’s motto, enabled him to rise to be selected as the head of Tzomet.
Then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan was hugely impressed by Cohen and, in 2005, appointed him head of a special project for recruiting agents and running them in operations to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. Later, Cohen was named deputy director of the agency under Tamir Pardo. He came to the attention of Netanyahu and his wife Sara after he participated in a number of meetings on the Iranian issue in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Netanyahu was not disappointed by Cohen after he named him head of the National Security Council in 2013. Cohen wrote two controversial opinions in support of Netanyahu’s stances: one justified the natural gas agreement that enabled the company owners to sell it for inflated prizes, allegedly because of its beneficial effect on Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan; the other concerned the need for Israel to purchase more submarines and missile ships.
In spite of his closeness to Netanyahu, Cohen spent a number of nerve-racking months before he was appointed Mossad director in 2015. He thought the job was his, but Netanyahu hesitated.
While he was waiting, Cohen began looking for career alternatives, talking with the billionaire businessman Arnon Milchan and his Australian partner James Packer about forming a cybersecurity company. Packer, as Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz reported in a riveting investigation last week, offered to compensate Cohen to the tune of $10 million.
Pardo thought Cohen was not a suitable fit to lead the Mossad, but included his name among the three candidates he presented to Netanyahu. The other two, who also served as deputy directors of the agency, were Ram Ben Barak (now a lawmaker) and N. The latter was Pardo’s preferred candidate, but Netanyahu did not ask Pardo’s opinion. Dagan, who was no longer serving in any official position, recommended Cohen.
When Netanyahu interviewed the candidates, he asked if they would be loyal to him personally. N. and Ben Barak were shocked, and replied that they were loyal to the country. Netanyahu announced the news of Cohen’s selection in a live broadcast.
Tehran in his sights
As Mossad chief since 2016, Cohen made a number of organizational changes – including establishing a strategic-diplomatic directorate, which handles Israel’s growing ties with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. These are relations that Cohen’s predecessors had also nurtured and pushed.
From the very beginning, Cohen spoke about the need for the Mossad to be a more “operational” organization, even though it was already that during the days of Dagan and Pardo.
Among the operations attributed to the agency under Cohen’s leadership are the killings of Hamas engineers in Malaysia and Tunisia, and obtaining information on jihadists’ plans to attack Israeli and Jewish targets outside of Israel and passing it on to respective foreign security services.
But Cohen sees his crowning achievement as the Mossad’s daring operations against Iran – first and foremost the theft of Iran’s nuclear archive in January 2018. The operation, urged on by Netanyahu and Cohen, put the wind in the sails for then-President Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran that May and then impose harsh sanctions.
Like Netanyahu, Cohen thought all along that the nuclear agreement was bad and looked for ways to thwart it. In July 2020, an explosion took place in an aboveground facility for uranium enrichment in Natanz. Four months later came the killing of Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who for two decades was in charge of Iran’s “weaponization” – the most important stage in the process of assembling a nuclear bomb.
Last month, Natanz’s electric system caused serious damage to the underground chamber where the facility’s centrifuges are located. The operation occurred under Cohen’s watch and should be credited to him.
Operations like these are the work of teams involving hundreds of desk officers, intelligence analysts and researchers, cybersecurity experts and agents in the field who risk their lives and remain anonymous. Many of them are proud of their achievements but unhappy that their charismatic commander leaves the impression that it was all done single-handedly.
The Mossad is an organization that operates on the principle of continuity: Each chief harvests the fruits his predecessor grew and invests in making sure his successor enjoys the same inheritance.
More than that, the operations described above, and many more, are the result of long-term planning, information-gathering and penetration. The final stage is only the tip of the iceberg. The decision about if and when “to give the orders” is an operational-intelligence decision, but it can unfortunately often be political.
That’s exactly where the claims of Netanyahu-Cohen critics come in: They suspect that the timing of recent sabotage operations against Iran attributed to the Mossad or the Israel Defence Forces isn’t accidental, and that they were designed to undermine the United States’ intentions to return to the Iran nuclear deal.
Alongside the many successful operations of the past five-and-a-half years, it’s important to remember that Cohen’s tenure was also filled with personal problematic behavior.
His close ties with businesspeople continued while he headed the Mossad, based on the principle of “cast thy bread upon the waters.” Among other things, real estate magnate Alfred Akirov and diamond dealer Beny Steinmetz were invited to give lectures at Mossad headquarters. Cohen befriended Milchan and Packer, who recently admitted that he is bipolar.
Just like the prime minister’s reckless son Yair Netanyahu, the Mossad chief allowed himself to be hosted in Packer’s posh suite at Tel Aviv’s Royal Beach Hotel and with his help (and that of Milchan), established a connection with the Indian tycoon Ratan Tata. The Packer connection resulted in Cohen getting several free tickets to a performance by Mariah Carey (Packer’s girlfriend at the time).
The Civil Service Commission looked into the matter, but decided to close the case. However, the latest revelation by Weitz, concerning a $20,000 cash gift Cohen allegedly received from Packer for his daughter’s wedding, is in a different league.
Cohen also tried to mediate a business dispute between the car importers Rami Ungar and Michael Levi, an affair that also involved the private detective and ex-Mossad operative Aviram Halevi.
But perhaps the culmination of Cohen’s problematic and baffling behavior took place when he reportedly flew in a private plane to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to meet with former President Joseph Kabila and the diamond magnate Dan Gertler. Gertler is under U.S. sanctions in connection with allegations of bribery involving Kabila. U.S. President Trump lifted the sanctions on Gertler just before leaving the White House; Biden reimposed them in March. It is unprecedented for a Mossad chief to travel to a foreign country and meet with a former leader of that country without informing the serving head of state first.
Cohen’s efforts to organize meetings between Netanyahu and Arab leaders before the last election had the whiff of politics to them. Nor did Cohen hide his aspirations to one day be the prime minister of Israel.
For better or worse, the Cohen era has shown that Israel can no longer rely on a relationship solely of trust between the Mossad chief and the prime minister (who has the power to appoint the agency head without any need for cabinet approval). Whatever government comes to power in Israel next must urgently pass a Mossad law, similar to the Shin Bet security service law of 2002, that regulates the organization’s activities.
Twenty years ago, then-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin proposed legislation that would have regularized the status of the Mossad like the CIA bill does, and defined its authority, rights and responsibilities to the public and legally, and established the responsibility of the state to Mossad operatives – who in many cases work overseas on missions that violate other countries’ sovereignty.
The idea has been raised again and again over the years, and even reached the stage of a written bill during the terms of Dagan and Pardo. Netanyahu and the Justice Ministry backed the draft, but after Cohen took over as Mossad chief, the bill was shelved. We can only hope that D., the deputy director of Mossad who Netanyahu picked five months ago to be Cohen’s successor, will act to advance this law.
Through no fault of his own, D. finds himself in the midst of a serious political crisis and so, contrary to his personal feelings and to democratic norms, his name has so far been barred from publication. Orna Barbivai, chairwoman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said recently she would look into the matter.
With the end of Cohen’s term, one of D.’s most urgent tasks will be to restore the Mossad to its role of collecting intelligence and engaging in special operations the way it has traditionally operated: As a covert organization, operating behind the scenes and avoiding PR and politicization – and where decisions are made in the interests of the state, without fanfare.