The (Mis)adventures of Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen

Mixing politics and business with espionage: as he has risen in the ranks, Yossi Cohen has formed close ties with the Netanyahu family and a clutch of billionaires

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. Cohen’s closest relationship seems to be with Netanyahu.
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. Cohen’s closest relationship seems to be with Netanyahu.Credit: Moti Milrod and Emil Salman
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

Two weeks ago, Bloomberg News reported that pressure had been exerted on Trump administration officials last year by Mossad head Yossi Cohen and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer to remove sanctions on Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire suspected by the U.S., British and Swiss authorities of corrupt dealings connected to his diamond interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Bloomberg also reported that Cohen flew twice to the DRC in 2019 in a private plane to meet with its former president, Joseph Kabila, without telling incumbent Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. When Tshisekedi found out, he told Cohen he was not welcome in the DRC for such meetings.

Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2012.Credit: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

A former senior Mossad official expressed surprise at the meetings. “It’s a strange story and on the face of it seems unacceptable. Why meet with a former president without the current president’s knowledge? I don’t recall an instance like this, in which a Mossad chief acted on behalf of a specific businessman. In the past, there were cases of the Mossad’s getting help from all kinds of companies and businessmen. But businessmen are meant to help us, not us help them.”

In the end, the Trump administration rescinded some of the sanctions on Gertler, enabling him to pay money he owed to various Israelis, among them apparently his lawyer, Boaz Ben Zur, who also represents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The sanctions were recently reinstated by the Biden administration.

Until 1996, the general public did not know the name of the Mossad chief. The media would report about him and the head of the Shin Bet security service using only the first letter of their first names. Even after the ban ended, Mossad heads kept a low public profile. Covert operations were attributed to the organization by the foreign media alone.

Under Cohen, that has changed. He frequently makes appearances at high-profile events, like the ceremonies marking the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the signing of the Abraham Accords. The Mossad itself has garnered significantly more media exposure. The most prominent example is the smuggling of Iranian nuclear documents to Israel three years ago, an operation that was revealed by Netanyahu in a televised press conference.

It’s hard for the general public to know exactly what goes on in the Mossad, but Cohen generally gets high marks for his performance, particularly for the operations the Mossad carried out during his term. At the same time, a close look at the eight years in which Cohen’s name has been known to the public shows a string of cases in which he has been linked to tycoons or business people. His name has also been associated with business disputes that have nothing to do with his role in the Mossad.

Senior security officials often develop ties with tycoons and business people after leaving public service. Cohen, however, has been cultivating ties while still at his job. His most prominent relationships are with Hollywood producer and businessman Arnon Milchan and Australian investor James Packer. Milchan is involved in Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust for accepting gifts from Milchan worth some 700,000 shekels (about $210,000).

Family business

Cohen, 59, grew up in a religious Zionist family in Jerusalem. He joined the Mossad in 1982 after his army service, starting his career by recruiting and handling spies. Later, he headed the Mossad office in a European country in the early 2000s. In 2006 he was tapped to head Tzomet, which recruits and operates agents in the field, and after five years was appointed deputy Mossad chief. In 2013, he was appointed chairman of the National Security Council, which is when his name first became known to the public. Since January 2016, he has served as the Mossad’s 12th director.

Cohen’s brother, Haim, a former senior executive at IDB Group and a long-time financial-services executive, is married to Zehavit Cohen, managing partner of private equity firm Apax Partners Israel. But Yossi Cohen’s business connections go beyond family. Those who know the Mossad head say he has always enjoyed the company of tycoons.

“When he was branch head, everyone had the sense that he was well connected,” says one source. “At the Mossad, you get a chance to get friendly with international businessmen. They might ask you why you’re meeting with Milchan, and you can say it was because he had helped the Mossad, and that’s how it is with other businessmen.”

Cohen’s closest relationship seems to be with Netanyahu. In early March, in an interview with Ayala Hasson on Channel 13, Netanyahu said that should he form the next government, he would assign a role to Cohen, who finishes his term at the Mossad in June. Many understood the remark as a promise of a cabinet post on live television and an indicator of how loyal Cohen is to Netanyahu. It can’t happen, however, because by law, senior civil servants must wait three years before entering political life. Still, Netanyahu could appoint him to a nonpolitical position.

Mossad chief Cohen, right, and Prime Minister Netanyahu during a Hanukkah ceremony in 2016.Credit: Kobi Gidon / GPO

Cohen was forced to issue an official statement denying any political connection with Netanyahu or Likud. Yet a few days later, Walla News reported that Cohen had visited Abu Dhabi for three days to organize a visit by Netanyahu that many saw as a bit of political theater ahead of the March 23 election. (The visit, in any case, was canceled.)

The relationship between Cohen and Netanyahu was formed when Cohen was named head of the NSC. A former senior defense official says that in early 2010, when he was deputy Mossad head, Cohen told colleagues that he was interested in the NSC post, an ambition that struck some as strange. The NSC is regarded as lacking influence, but the official says it appeared that Cohen saw it as a way to get close to Netanyahu, believing that to be the path to being named head of the Mossad. The NSC operates within the Prime Minister’s Office and reports directly to the prime minister.

Channel 13 journalist Raviv Drucker recently reported that based on statements made by Milchan and his assistant Hadas Klein in Case 1000, Cohen had lobbied through Milchan to get the job and that Milchan had indeed spoken to Netanyahu about it. Milchan told Cohen that the prime minister’s wife, Sara, valued loyalty to them. Cohen promised Milchan he would be loyal, Milchan said. Cohen and Netanyahu both denied the report.

The issue of Cohen’s loyalty to Netanyahu also came up in a 2016 report on the Channel 12 investigative program “Uvda,” where N., who was a candidate to head the Mossad but lost out to Cohen, said he had been asked by Netanyahu whether he’d be personally loyal to him if he got the job, to which he had replied that he would not.

During Cohen’s term at the NSC, there were at least two events in which he clearly intervened on the prime minister’s behalf in decisions that were particularly controversial and were heavily criticized by security professionals.

Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi, who is active in the Gulf, mainly in the United Arab Emirates. Credit: Moti Milrod

One was the government’s plan for governing the natural gas industry, which was approved at the end of 2015, despite opposition by then director of the Antitrust Authority, David Gilo. Gilo argued that the plan would deter development of a competitive natural gas market and harm the interests of consumers.

Without Gilo’s support, the Netanyahu government had no legal way to implement the plan. To circumvent him, officials sought to invoke Clause 52 of the Antitrust Law, which entitles the cabinet to overrule antitrust rulings in case of national security considerations. But the heads of the military and the Mossad were not prepared to issue an opinion that would justify doing so.

It was left to Cohen to deliver the goods. He signed the opinion presented to the cabinet that justified the use of Clause 52. The day after he appeared at a Knesset Economic Affairs Committee hearing on the matter, Netanyahu appointed him head of the Mossad.

During the committee meeting, Cohen was photographed in the Knesset corridors whispering with Orly Ben-Shamai, a lobbyist for the energy company Delek Group. Ben-Shamai reportedly said the two were childhood friends.

Cohen also did Netanyahu’s bidding in disputes in the defense establishment regarding the purchase of four boats to defend the Mediterranean gas rigs, an issue that is now part of the submarine affair, or Case 3000.

Shipping mogul and vehicle importer Abraham (Rami) Ungar. Credit: Moti Kimche

The Defense Ministry issued an international tender for the vessels in July 2014, but froze it three months later after Israel received a proposal from the German government to subsidize the cost of the vessels conditional on their being manufactured by the German firm ThyssenKrupp. Case 3000 centers on whether Netanyahu was instrumental in having the tender frozen.

According to an affidavit by Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, then-director-general of the Defense Ministry, Cohen pressured Harel not to hold the tender. When Harel decided to anyhow, Cohen pressured him to cancel it.

“Throughout the whole process of procuring the boats, there was blatant intervention by various entities in the Prime Minister’s Office, first and foremost the NSC,” Harel’s affidavit states. “Though I have worked in many positions in the IDF and in defense procurement from the civilian side in the Defense Ministry, I had never experienced or even heard of events of the kind that I’ve described above.”

How many subs?

Harel notes in his affidavit that Cohen, as head of the NSC, had agreed with the security establishment that the IDF needed five submarines, contrary to Netanyahu’s demand for more. But Harel brings up a strange incident in which Cohen was involved in writing a memorandum of understanding with the German government with regard to future submarine purchases from ThyssenKrupp to replace submarines in use now. In doing so, Harel asserts, Cohen worked at Netanyahu’s behest behind the back of the security establishment.

This was revealed to Harel by chance by Jacob Nagel, who was then serving as acting NSC chairman. In February 2016, Nagel showed Harel a document prepared by Cohen when the latter was NSC chairman, and sent to the Germans. Nagel, according to the affidavit, asked Harel not to show the document to then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

According to Harel, the document included “an arrow diagram marking the dates for replacing the submarines in the future. Nagel asked me if I wasn’t aware of the connection that existed on this issue between the NSC and officials in Germany, and I answered him that no one in the Defense Ministry or the IDF knows anything of the kind. I got the impression that Nagel was also surprised to hear the answer,” Harel writes in his affidavit.

Hollywood producer and businessman Arnon MilchanCredit: Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP

When it comes to businessmen, Cohen’s most significant relationships are with Arnon Milchan and James Packer. The ties between Milchan and Cohen were formed in the early 2000s in the context of Milchan’s previous ties to the Mossad. Milchan, according to what he told investigators in Case 1000, was the one who introduced Packer to Cohen, when Cohen was the head of the NSC.

The relationship between Packer and Cohen made headlines in the context of Case 1000, when in late 2018 it was revealed that when Cohen was the NSC head, Packer bought him seven tickets worth thousands of shekels for the Israeli performance of singer Mariah Carey, Packer’s ex-fiancee. Cohen reportedly stayed in Packer’s hotel room in Tel Aviv at the same time that Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, was staying at the hotel. Cohen was summoned to the Civil Service Commission for an inquiry, but the attorney general decided not to pursue the case.

Hadas Klein, Milchan’s assistant, told investigators that Cohen would come to swim in Packer’s pool in Caesarea and smoked his cigars. She said Cohen was afraid that Netanyahu would learn about the visits and canceled once when he found out that Sara Netanyahu was coming to visit the Australian billionaire. Klein also testified that Cohen told her that in one instance he himself bought 1,800 shekels ($540) of cigars for Netanyahu. Cohen denies it.

The ties with Packer and Milchan became significant towards the end of Cohen’s tenure as head of the NSC. At the time it seemed as though N. was the main candidate for Mossad chief. According to a former senior defense official, Cohen went on a three-week vacation during which he was in contact with BSI, a cybersecurity firm connected to Packer and Milchan, about becoming the director or a partner in the company.

Milchan had started BSI in 2008 together with Indian billionaire Ratan Tata. Tamir Pardo, Cohen’s predecessor as Mossad chief, told Case 1000 investigators that in 2011 Milchan asked Pardo to meet with Tata and asked that Cohen be present at that meeting. Pardo refused.

Australian investor James Packer.Credit: Tim Wimborne/REUTERS

Reports from the investigations of Netanyahu’s cases indicate that Cohen was prepared to begin a career in business. In Case 1000, Milchan told police about a meeting between himself, Cohen and Packer in London, in which they discussed Cohen’s business future with the two. According to Milchan, Cohen even told him that Packer, who had invested in the company, had offered him a $10 million signing fee.

The day of Cohen’s appointment as Mossad head was dramatic. The defense establishment was convinced that N. would get the job and Cohen was still talking about taking the BSI job. Netanyahu’s announcement was delayed and Sara Netanyahu arrived at a convention of Likud activists hours late. Finally, Netanyahu announced Cohen’s appointment in a live broadcast.

It subsequently emerged that Netanyahu had made a final decision about the appointment at the last minute. That prompted speculation that there was a connection between Sara’s surprising delay and Netanyahu’s last-minute decision. “People who know Cohen and N. noticed that one of the phrases with which Netanyahu described Cohen was related to N.’s resumé,” says a former Mossad official. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a sign that up to the last moment N. was still supposed to be appointed to the position.”

Intervening

Milchan and Packer are not the only business people connected to Cohen. Others include shipping mogul and vehicle importer Abraham (Rami) Ungar. Last month, Ungar prevailed over another businessman, Michael Levi, in a dispute that had festered for almost a decade over control of the Kia Israel franchise. Among other things, Ungar claimed that Aviram Halevi, a former deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, had stolen commercial secrets from him by hacking his computers. Halevi, at a certain stage of the conflict, “switched sides” to Ungar, revealing to Ungar his alleged methods of operation.

Mikhael Mirilashvili, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Earlier, Ungar had dispatched former defense officials to Halevi in an appeal to convince him to change sides and testify on his behalf. One of the emissaries was Cohen. In March 2013, Cohen, then deputy head of the Mossad, contacted Halevi and told him that Dori Klagsbald, Ungar’s attorney, wanted to meet with him. “Cohen’s involvement seemed very strange to me,” said Halevi in his testimony. “He was a serving deputy Mossad chief at the time. It’s not certain that he understood the implications of his involvement.”

Cohen refused to testify at the trial. But in a reply to Halevi’s attorneys he confirmed that he had indeed contacted Halevi regarding Klagsbald’s request. In his testimony Halevi added that Ungar had also turned to Pardo. However, Pardo did not contact Halevi.

Several years later, it emerged that between 2011 and 2013 Ungar donated 1.1 million shekels to the synagogue where Cohen worships in Modi’in. Some of the donations were transferred through a company in Panama, which is not directly connected to Ungar.

Other billionaires donated to the same synagogue. One of them is the Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi, who is active in the Gulf, mainly in the United Arab Emirates. His company Logic Industries donated 300,000 shekels. Another is Yitzhak Mirilashvili, a partner in broadcaster Channel 20 and son of businessman Mikhael Mirilashvili, whose Meromim Foundation donated 350,000 shekels.

Last June, Klagsbald confirmed in testimony to the Tel Aviv District Court that Ungar had made the donation but claimed that Cohen’s intervention on behalf of Ungar was due to Cohen’s friendship with Klagsbald. “Yossi Cohen is a close friend of mine and did me a favor,” he said at the hearing.

Cohen’s name also came up in another business dispute, this time over a loan that Mikhael Mirilashvili had given his brother Gabriel in 2008. Cohen, TheMarker reported in September 2019, was in phone contact with Mikhael Mirilashvili’s assistant starting in 2013, after he was appointed the head of the NSC. In November and December 2013, one of Mirilashvili’s assistants was in contact with Cohen and apparently served as a translator for Mirilashvili, who doesn’t speak Hebrew.

Before the conflict was finally resolved recently, an unnamed businessman had asked Cohen to mediate. In this case, Cohen refused and sent him to former Mossad chief Danny Yatom. They met once, but nothing came of the mediation. Cohen and Mirilashvili deny this occurred.

This June, Cohen will step down as head of the Mossad. It won’t be a surprise if Netanyahu tailors a position for him, such as point man on the Iranian nuclear issue or ambassador in the U.S. Another possibility is that Cohen will enter the business world. Whatever the case, his path to politics will be open after the cooling-off period.

“From what I know about him, his ambition is boundless,” says one source. “He wants to be prime minister and is planning his steps accordingly. Bibi also recognizes that and therefore Bibi will probably find some job for him. He doesn’t want a man like Yossi to subvert him.”

Asked to comment, the Prime Minister’s Office said on behalf of the Mossad, “Cohen has devoted his life to the State of Israel’s security and for decades has been exceptionally successful in managing life-threatening operations that have contributed greatly to ensuring the country’s strength in distant and complex arenas. Any attempt to damage his good name and his professional integrity by recycling tendentious reports will not succeed.”