Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Israeli businessman Aaron Frenkel has contributed 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) to Yad Sarah, the medical equipment-lending charity. Hundreds of others from Israel and abroad have also given millions of shekels to purchase medical equipment. These donations are given modestly and quietly.
The Mossad is also purchasing medical equipment now, or so say the headlines, reports and numerous statements to the media. According to one statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Mossad is assisting Yad Sarah. These reports make quite a few people in the Mossad uncomfortable, accustomed as they are to operating quietly under the radar. These shows of PR embarrass many of them. What’s more, the Mossad’s role in this task is fairly marginal and in fact, in purely professional terms, it’s not clear why the agency has been given this mission.
The Mossad has no relative advantage over the Defense Ministry or the Health Ministry. If anything, the Defense Ministry has much more experience is purchasing, logistics and handling large shipments from abroad. It must be understood that in ordinary times, the Mossad does most of its purchasing from the local market and through the Defense Ministry. This is usually technological equipment like computers and surveillance equipment. When the Mossad needs equipment from abroad, it is purchased secretly through sub-suppliers. When it comes to making purchases through ordinary channels, who needs the Mossad?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to give the responsibility for managing medical equipment purchases to Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has four reasons. The first is the hysterics and horror scenarios that our weak and desiccated health care system would have to deal with (Netanyahu himself said that an estimated 10,000 people could die). The second: Netanyahu is keeping devoted and professional officials away from him, and prefers to work with a small group of people he trusts, like Cohen. Third: Netanyahu didn’t want the Defense Ministry to be in sole charge of purchasing because it’s headed by his hated rival Naftali Bennett. And the fourth reason is that Defense Ministry director general is Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam, an uncharismatic official who, to put it mildly, has not excelled in the past when managing an emergency. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, he was “moved” from his post of chief of the Northern Command, to be replaced by the deputy chief of staff at the time, Moshe Kaplinsky.
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Yossi Cohen is a charmer, a good manager and a talented intelligence officer who has succeeded at most of the tasks he has been given, from enlisting and fielding agents to fighting Iran’s nuclear program. As head of the Mossad for the past three years, he is credited with many achievements in gathering intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran, including the operation to steal the nuclear archive in Tehran, thwarting Islamic State plans for attacks throughout the world, and apparently a few assassinations of Hamas operatives attributed to the Mossad in Malaysia and Tunisia. Cohen’s main weakness is in his exaggerated tendency toward exposure, PR and the dangerous personal relationship he has developed with Netanyahu. This relationship has been explained, among other things, by his aspiration – he has expressed this himself – to be prime minister in the future.
Be that as it may, Cohen has given an official known as H., the head of the Mossad’s technology division, responsibility for the equipment purchasing mission. In the past H. served in an elite Military Intelligence unit, and for the past 15 years he has been involved in combined technological and human intelligence operations. His task was to quickly establish a control center at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.
Even if H. thought differently, he couldn’t refuse. While his people don’t wear uniforms, the Mossad is a hierarchical body like the army and will carry out any order or mission. The control center is manned by representatives of the health, defense and finance ministries; the National Security Council; academic, industrial and security experts; prominent medical firms; and other experts. Military Intelligence’s technology unit and the elite Matkal unit are also well represented.
In the beginning the Mossad was a great help in making order out of the chaos, but then it “moved aside,” and purchasing was placed in the hands of Dr. Orly Weinstein, head of the Health Ministry’s public hospitals division. In fact, Weinstein has the last word on what to buy, from whom and at what price. Her budget is a whopping 3.4 billion shekels. “The Mossad helped me a great deal. Its contribution is mainly in establishing the managerial and operational platform,” Weinstein says. “When I say we’re buying equipment, this is a discussion among a great many people who have to be synchronized. There are no superstars here. Everyone makes their contribution.”
Weinstein and her staff have so far signed contracts with local and foreign suppliers and manufacturers for the purchase of 14,000 ventilators (so far 400 have come from Europe and China and another 150 from local manufacturers), thousands of CPAP machines – another type of respiratory ventilation device – 30 ECMO machines, which allow the heart and lungs to rest, 250 ultrasound machines, several tons of oxygen and tens of millions of surgical masks, N95 masks, gloves, goggles and protective suits. “I know that some of the equipment won’t get here. Competition is fierce and there are great temptations to prefer customers who pay more, in cash and immediately. When there’s a problem, the Mossad people help,” Weinstein says.
That is indeed the great advantage of the Mossad – the ability to respond quickly, to identify fraudsters, but no more than that. Contrary to the flattering reports, including in The New York Times, about the cloak-and-dagger type operations during the coronavirus crisis, most of the equipment was purchased officially in Europe and China. And in those countries, as opposed to Arab and Muslim countries (which are not among the equipment suppliers), the Mossad has no advantage over the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry or private firms.
The impression that Cohen and H. are trying to promote – that the Mossad is acting clandestinely – and the hints that it will not hesitate to use the methods it specializes in, such as stealing, have no basis whatsoever. The Mossad did not steal medical equipment and has no intention of doing so. All of these arrogant insinuations could only give the Mossad a reputation that just like it stops at nothing when it comes to enemies, so it behaves, treacherously and unrestrainedly, with friends.
Eliyahu Sasson, a former senior diplomat who served as minister of the postal service and minister of police in the 1960s, is reputed to have coined a phrase in Hebrew: “You did it, you reported it – you did it.” Nowadays this has been turned around: “You didn’t do it, you report it – you did it.” The overexposure of the Mossad might damage one of the guiding principles of the organization since its founding: quietly, secretly, and without bells and whistles.