Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that he will be extending the term of Yossi Cohen, the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, by six months, through June 2021. The decision was described in a statement as the result of "the security challenges facing the State of Israel."
Cohen, who has been in office since January of 2016, was previously the national security adviser and had also served as deputy director of the Mossad. He is considered close to the prime minister. Among the operations that the Mossad carried out under Cohen’s leadership was the theft of Iranian documents in 2018 that proved that Tehran was working on the development of nuclear weapons.
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Cohen, who is 59, joined the espionage agency following his army service and specialized in recruiting and handling agents. He headed the Tzomet division, which deals with the gathering of intelligence information from human sources. During his stint as division head, he was awarded the Israel Defense Prize. He later directed the Kesher operational technology division. When he was deputy agency director, friction developed between Cohen and Mossad director Tamir Pard, until 2013, when Cohen took the job as national security adviser. In that position, he made contacts and forged alliances in the political sector, and according to political sources, became friendly with the prime minister’s wife, Sara.
Two and a half years after he took the helm of the Mossad, a Haaretz article took stock of his tenure, noting that the spy agency had undergone a number of changes, including a major increase in its budget, the use of new methods and an increase in the number of operations that the agency undertook.
Among the operations attributed to the agency under Cohen was the assassination of Hamas drone expert Mohammed Zawahri in Tunisia, and of Hamas engineer Fadi al-Batsh. About a year after his appointment, the prosecutor’s office announced that it was examining whether Cohen had received improper favors from the Australian billionaire James Packer, who was close to the prime minister.
When the issue was referred to the civil service commission, Cohen called it “a mistake, a nothing,” and apologized. He also reimbursed the government for the cost of tickets that he had received from Packer, which put an end to the matter.
Cohen has represented Netanyahu on a large number of diplomatic missions to Europe, the United States and Arab countries. Three weeks ago, for example, he went to Jordan to convey a message to King Abdullah II from Netanyahu about Israel’s possible moves to annex territory in the West Bank. He is also in close touch with directors of foreign intelligence agencies and has conveyed diplomatic messages condemning Iran.
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In the 2018 Haaretz article, it was noted that he frequently has said, “I am loyal to Netanyahu. He is the State of Israel, just as Sharon and Olmert were,” referring to former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Cohen’s critics in the security cabinet and in the Knesset claimed at the time that his close relationship with Netanyahu was creating a culture that made it difficult to voice other viewpoints. “He almost doesn’t speak in the security cabinet,” one minister said. “No one knows what he is doing, what missions he is undertaking. He only reports to the prime minister. He doesn’t encourage [creativity], doesn’t add anything, doesn’t challenge and doesn’t disagree.”
Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mossad under Cohen’s leadership pursued an effort to procure testing supplies abroad as well as ventilators. The deputy director general of the Health Ministry, Itamar Grotto, said at the time that the testing supplies that the Mossad purchased were not necessary. Criticism was also made about the lack of secrecy in some of the agency’s operations.
When the then defense minister, Naftali Bennett, was asked if the Mossad stole medical equipment to bring it to Israel, he did not deny the allegation. Health Ministry staff also reported that there were disagreements between Cohen and the Health Ministry director general at the time, Moshe Bar Siman Tov.