Mossad Chief's Test: Telling Netanyahu What He Doesn't Want to Hear

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, December 7, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman

Two former classmates at the Netiv Meir yeshiva high school in Jerusalem were appointed only weeks apart to head two of Israel’s main security organizations. The first, Roni Alsheich, only days ago assumed the post of police commissioner, and the other, Yossi Cohen, was appointed Monday to head the Mossad.

After his studies and army service, Alsheich made a career for himself in the Shin Bet Security Service and cultivated a serious mustache, while Cohen, who had transferred to the Or Etzion yeshiva, joined the Mossad after the army, took off his kippa, became a legendary runner of agents and cultivated a head of hair that earned him the nickname “the model.” Incidentally, they both also have a special fondness for ties.

Colorful trivia aside, it must be stressed that Cohen’s appointment is most deserving. Like the other two candidates for the position – Intelligence Affairs Ministry director-general and former deputy Mossad head Ram Ben-Barak, and current deputy Mossad chief “N,” Cohen has the requisite talent and operational experience, along with an intimate familiarity with the organization. 

What distinguishes Cohen from the other two, apparently giving him the slight advantage that won him the position, is that over the past two years, as national security adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, he spent days and nights with the appointer – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and became one of his close advisers. 

Cohen never hid that one of the reasons he’d asked at the time to be appointed national security adviser was to acquire additional experience in areas in which he lacked expertise and to gain a foothold in the Prime Minister’s Office, from which he had a better chance of being named Mossad head. It was no small gamble. One need only look at some of the others who have worked in the Prime Minister’s Office to understand that a few years at Netanyahu’s side is not necessarily a recipe for advancement. But Cohen’s gamble paid off.

The leap Cohen made from deputy Mossad head to national security adviser was a high one, perhaps too high. Cohen was not a natural choice. Despite 30 years of operational and intelligence activities, he was not familiar with the diplomatic world and the decision-making process in the cabinet and the government, and had virtually no experience in formulating policies or diplomatic-security strategy. Cohen’s tuition on the job was not low, and even after two years he did not manage to establish himself as a strong and independent diplomatic-security heavyweight like his predecessor, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror.

On the other hand, Cohen was almost solely responsible for maintaining the dialogue with the U.S. administration when the worst ever crisis between the United States and Israel emerged over the Iran nuclear agreement. Cohen objected to Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress on the eve of the Israeli election and did his best to prevent an escalation in the confrontation with the Obama administration. His success and influence were only partial, but were not insignificant. While Israel’s Ambassador to the United State Ron Dermer is perceived as a Republican agent by the White House, which considers him persona non grata, Cohen, under the most difficult circumstances, maintained a channel of dialogue with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who headed the American negotiating team with Iran, and with the White House’s national security adviser, Susan Rice. 

There are pros and cons to Cohen’s relationship with the prime minister. On the one hand, he knows Netanyahu well, what he likes and what he doesn’t, what’s going on in his head, what excites him and what annoys him. No less important is that he knows Netanyahu’s limitations and weaknesses and the environment in which he lives and works.

On the other hand, this familiarity is liable to be his greatest disadvantage. Starting in January, when he enters Mossad headquarters near Tel Aviv, he will no longer be Netanyahu’s personal and trusted adviser, but the head of one of Israel’s strongest and most important organizations. The Mossad head must be daring, must go over the edge, breach boundaries and not a few times must be able to bang on the table or tell the prime minister to his face –whether in private or in security cabinet meetings – things he won’t want to hear. This will be Yossi Cohen’s test – whether he can shed the cloak of “the prime minister’s man.”

One of the biggest shadows that passed between Netanyahu and outgoing Mossad head Tamir Pardo related to the dispute between them over the Iranian issue. A year-and-a-half ago, Haaretz revealed that in a parlor meeting with businessmen, Pardo said that the conflict with the Palestinians was the primary threat to Israel, not Iranian nukes. When this was published, Netanyahu was furious. 

Pardo, incidentally, was right. Since that parlor meeting Israel has gone to war with Gaza and a third intifada has broken out on the West Bank. Iran, on the other hand, signed an agreement with the world powers that will restrict its nuclear program for more than a decade.

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