The Only Surprising Thing About Netanyahu's Mossad Chief Pick

Yossi Cohen's replacement, who'll have to deftly navigate between Netanyahu and Biden, has been described as flexible and an 'outstanding' appointment by former Mossad chiefs

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Yossi Melman
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Prime Minister Bemjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Bemjamin NetanyahuCredit: Moshe Milner/GPO
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The only surprise about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of D. to be the next Mossad chief is the timing of the announcement. This time Netanyahu did what is generally done in properly-run countries and announced his choice early.

Five years ago, he announced Yossi Cohen’s appointment at the last minute and on television, after he had deliberated between him and two other candidates – Ram Ben Barak (today a lawmaker), and N. In addition, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Netanyahu didn’t investigate the candidate’s background too deeply as he would have in the past, seeking, among other things, an answer to the question, “Will he be loyal to me?”

The decision to appoint the deputy Mossad head was expected and it’s a reasonable choice. His full name will be published only after Justice Eliezer Goldberg, who heads the advisory committee for senior state appointments, approves the nomination. If no exceptional stains are found in D.’s record or behavior, the committee will finish its deliberations within weeks. It’s possible that even then his name will be kept under wraps until he officially assumes the post in June.

There were three top contenders in the race to replace Cohen. Along with the D. who was chosen, there was another D. who wasn’t chosen – an intelligence officer who held a variety of positions in the organization and headed several divisions. He resigned from the service more than a year ago when he realized his chances weren’t high.

The third candidate was A., who worked in several operational divisions in the Mossad, including Caesarea, Tzomet and Keshet, and who had been deputy Mossad chief from 2015 to 2018, first under Tamir Pardo and then under Cohen. He was considered the leading candidate until D. was named Cohen’s deputy. In the interim A. took a study break and now will probably leave the Mossad.

The next Mossad head is in his mid-50s. He did his military service in Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff’s elite special operations force. Thirty years ago he was recruited by the Mossad, and after finishing his training joined the Tzomet division, which is responsible for identifying, recruiting and operating agents. He been there since, except for a short stint of two years as the deputy commander of Keshet, the division responsible for surveillance and infiltrations. Senior Mossad officials describe D. as a reformer who is open to ideas for structural, organizational and professional changes; a man who is not set in his ways and is not conservative.

At Tzomet, D. went through the usual track and recruited agents in areas that were top priority for the Mossad – Iran and Hezbollah. Former senior Mossad officials say he was honest and fair, and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo described the appointment as “outstanding.” D.’s career in many ways is similar to that of Cohen, who also started at the Mossad as a recruitment officer and eventually became the head of Tzomet.

Yossi Cohen, 59, was meant to end his five-year stint at the end of 2020, but agreed to the prime minister’s request to stay on another six months. In retrospect, one of the reasons for this may have been the desire to complete the operation to assassinate Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientist who headed Iran’s military nuclear program. The attack on Fakhrizadeh in a Tehran suburb two and a half weeks ago is being attributed to the Mossad.

Cohen was considered an extremely successful intelligence and covert operations officer, but was also a controversial personality because of his closeness to Netanyahu and because of his willingness to express himself publicly and be photographed to an unprecedented degree. Cohen is associated with such achievements as the theft of Iran’s main nuclear archive, disrupting its construction of advanced centrifuges, and cyber attacks against Iran, including the one a few months ago that paralyzed shipping to the port of Bandar Abbas.

Other attacks attributed to the Mossad under his watch include the assassination of several “engineers” working in Tunisia and Malaysia to upgrade Hamas’ capabilities in the realms of drones and mini-submarines.

Though Cohen is due to leave in June, now that D. has been nominated he might bring his retirement forward. Cohen’s name has been floated as a possible ambassador to the United States. Another possibility is that Cohen will announce his resignation soon so he can enter politics. After the next election he could be named a minister, but he cannot run for Knesset because of the Cooling-off Law.

The changing of the guard at the head of the Mossad comes on the backdrop of Joe Biden’s election as the next U.S. president, and the desire of the president-elect to come to understandings and even a new agreement with Iran that would include removing America’s economic sanctions against it. D. will have a difficult mission: He will have to provide the prime minister with precise intelligence and a correct picture of reality, even if this displeases him. In other words, D.’s test will be the degree of assertiveness, determination and professionalism he will demonstrate to challenge Netanyahu if necessary.

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