Mossad and Bibi’s Top Security Advisor Squabbling Over Relations With Arab States

Meanwhile, in North Africa, after the Mossad backed and armed Libya’s renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, foreign sources say Israel is taking a more balanced position towards the internationally recognized government in Tripoli

Yossi Melman
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Meir Ben Shabbat, left close to the camera, and Yossi Cohen, right at the end of the table, at a security meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, second left.
Meir Ben Shabbat, left close to the camera, and Yossi Cohen, right at the end of the table, at a security meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, second left.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Ministry of Defence
Yossi Melman

After two months of delays caused by red tape, the Civil Service Commissioner approved R.’s appointment as the Intelligence Ministry’s new director-general. Although the government should be confirming his appointment soon, the Shin Bet security service is adamant that under law, until the announcement is official, his name cannot be published. The delay in revealing R.’s full name apparently stems from his desire to start his new job as the ministry’s director-general while technically on loan from his previous employer, the Shin Bet.

This is an unreasonable, unprecedented and unacceptable development. The director-general of a ministry is not a covert position. It is the highest position within the Civil Service and there can be no going back to the shadows from it.

R., aka “Maoz,” has worked for the Shin Bet for about 20 years. He was a case officer, recruiting and running agents, and advanced from there. Five years ago he was promoted to head of the “Gaza field” division, which is responsible for foiling terrorist operations using all of the disciplines at the Shin Bet’s disposal: case officers in the field, researchers back at desks and SIGINT (eavesdropping on phone calls, bugging computers or infiltrating or hacking and signals intelligence). It was in this position that R. came to know Meir Ben Shabbat, then the Shin Bet southern district chief and today the head of the National Security Council.

At the Shin Bet, R. and Ben Shabbat developed a close working relationship. They complemented each other well, with Ben Shabbat devoting most of his time to research and management roles, and R. drawing on his operational experience. Three years ago Ben Shabbat, who is very close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was appointed to head the NSC. He then chose R. to coordinate ties with the Arab states, with special emphasis on the Gulf states: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. At Ben Shabbat’s behest, R. went there and also received their representatives in Israel.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was not keen on these activities by Ben Shabbat and R.

Since its very establishment, the Mossad has been in charge of ties with foreign intelligence agencies and secret ties with countries that have no formal relations with Israel. Over years the Foreign Ministry and Shin Bet encroached into the Mossad’s monopoly in this area, occasionally causing bitter fights. After the issues were hashed out, finally a division of powers was clarified. Relations between the Shin Bet and Foreign Ministry (which has had its powers diminished by Netanyahu) are now mostly smooth.

But when Ben Shabbat and R. began encroaching on the Mossad’s territory, Cohen’s hackles rose anew.

Cohen had been the one who established the Mossad’s diplomatic division (aka “the system” in Mossad argot). This division raises diplomacy-related issues that transcend departments, with an emphasis on the Arab world.

Cohen demanded that Ben Shabbat stop infringing on his turf and blocked R. from embarking on some of these special missions. Ben Shabbat rebutted that he was acting on Netanyahu’s instructions. Cohen dug in his heels and in consultations among the three, a new division of labor was established: The NSC may continue, under Netanyahu’s guidance, to pursue ties with African countries like Chad and Sudan; efforts are also underway now to foster diplomatic ties with Niger, which has abundant uranium deposits.

Libyan war lord Khalifa Haftar attends a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, a small town to the east of Benghazi. May 17, 2014.
Libyan war lord Khalifa Haftar attends a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, a small town to the east of Benghazi. May 17, 2014.Credit: ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI / REUTERS

Recall that in February, just before the last election, Netanyahu flew to Uganda and met there with the chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. According to foreign press reports, the Mossad is responsible for relationships with the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan (in tandem with the Shin Bet), Morocco and Libya.

Foreign sources have reported in the past that Mossad representatives met with Libyan war lord Khalifa Haftar, and that – along with Egypt and UAE’s intelligence services – the Mossad has worked closely to supply weapons to Haftar, the renegade commander of the eastern forces in Libya. However, foreign sources who monitor the Libyan situation have noticed that Israel has recently adopted a more balanced approach towards the internationally recognized Tripoli based government of Fayez al Sarraj.

Being intelligent about the coronavirus

At the Intelligence Ministry, R. will be replacing director general Hagai Tzuriel, who arrived from the Mossad in 2016 where he had headed the agency’s research department and was station chief of the U.S. branch, among other positions. Having grasped which way the wind was blowing under the new minister, Eli Cohen, Tzuriel resigned.

Meanwhile, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Intelligence Ministry has been very active, and produced some important position papers. One, written at the behest of the Education Ministry, stated that the schools were apparently responsible for up to 20 percent of the infection rate among the general population during the first month of the disease’s spread. “This figure is expected to gradually decline afterwards,” the paper projected. It also said that high schools and middle schools were responsible for about half of the increase in the infection rate; and that once the schools were opened, the effect would likely last for months.

A different intriguing report the Intelligence Ministry penned at the behest of the Defense Ministry was about “readiness scenarios for the second wave,” aka “the tsunami,” which is presently washing over Israel. The Intelligence Ministry says the scenarios also apply to what lies ahead: i.e., the anticipated third wave in the winter, and until a vaccine is found. Their report warns that “the tsunami” could recur in one or all of these five scenarios:

1. Lifting lockdowns prematurely, returning to “normal” too fast.

2. Import from abroad (for instance via the plan to let tens of thousands of yeshiva students into Israel for the High Holidays; Israelis traveling abroad and then returning, including tens of thousands of Haredim expected to visit Uman in Ukraine).

3. A decline in the use of protective measures (masks, social distancing, personal hygiene).

4. Mutation. The coronavirus already exists in several variants and a increase in its infectiousness would portend ill.

5. Seasonality (for instance, winter propensity to flu on top of coronavirus).

Over the years, some talented experts have joined the Intelligence Ministry. Some hailed from military intelligence, the Shin Bet and Mossad, others from academia. One such is Levi Klempner, a polyglot “data analyst” who speaks 12 languages. Dr. Victor Israel heads the research division. Elisha Stoian runs a department charged with identifying nascent worldwide megatrends to afford the decision-makers time to strategically prepare for them.

For this and other purposes, the ministry employs a laboratory with advanced computing and AI technology, established in cooperation with the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Defense Research & Development.

Despite the high caliber of the Intelligence Ministry personnel, and even if cabinet members and defense officials read the reports and positions papers the ministry produces, its influence on the decision-makers is very limited. Minister Eli Cohen’s hopes of transforming the Intelligence Ministry into a National Intelligence Administration, à la the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence, will be quashed by the power, influence and killer instincts of the Mossad, Shin Bet and military intelligence.

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