Opinion

Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen's Unusual Weakness

Cohen has a knack for being near the cameras during official ceremonies and his relationship with journalists is much closer than what was customary in the past, signs pointing toward a possible future in politics

Mossad director Yossi Cohen with Netanyahu
Kobi Gideon / Government Press Office

Early in Mossad director Yossi Cohen’s career, he was dubbed “the Model.” Not necessarily the most flattering nickname, but apparently Cohen likes it. It seems to me, however, that a better name for him would be “the PR guy.”

During Meir Dagan’s first year as Mossad head, there were some press reports that were highly critical of the way he was managing the agency. Dagan had been appointed — somewhat surprisingly — by Ariel Sharon, after serving in a political post under him in the Likud party.

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In short, the public verdict on Dagan had been delivered — but in the end, reality didn’t square with the articles and Dagan is now considered one of the best Mossad directors in Israel’s history.

It’s hard for journalists to judge a Mossad head’s performance in real time. After all, one cannot interview incumbent senior Mossad officials. All of them undergo periodic polygraph tests. Information, if it leaks at all, is passed through go-betweens. Its credibility is often low, its capacity for manipulation high.

I admit, therefore, that I don’t have any real tools for forming an opinion on Cohen’s performance as Mossad director, but there is one thing that worries me: I don’t think there’s ever been a Mossad chief who was as fond of the spotlight as he is. His relationship with journalists is much closer than what was customary in the past. Cohen has a knack for being near the cameras during official ceremonies. He even agreed to give brief interviews — while rebuffing, as expected, all “uncomfortable” questions about Iran’s nuclear archive (and of course the journalists reported on all the details of how the archive was seized).

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Cohen’s narrative has resonated significantly in the media recently. It’s been written that he took an organization in crisis and turned it around after his predecessor, Tamir Pardo, practically left “scorched earth” behind. It’s as if the glorious Mossad was an organization in decline until Cohen came and rescued it.

Cohen has known for years how to create an interesting network of connections, suitable to a politician in the making. A leading publicist, a top lawyer, those kinds of people. He categorically denies that he has any political ambitions, but I’m convinced that that’s the objective.

His weakness for the spotlight is accompanied by a lack of independence from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Dagan and Pardo stood up to Netanyahu on the Iran issue. Dagan didn’t hesitate to express opinions that differed from those of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But it will be recalled that Cohen, during his term as national security adviser, penned several opinions (like on the natural-gas framework agreement) that surprisingly matched the interests of the prime minister.

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He signed on to important decisions regarding the acquisition of submarines and patrol ships, writing a document that helped justify the cancellation of the international request for bids that led to the purchase of the watercraft from the Germans. I will allow myself to cautiously suggest that he signed off on those decisions even though he wasn’t all that familiar with the issues at hand. Later, he was barely able to explain those decisions; in fact, he could barely remember what he had signed.

His weakness before Netanyahu presumably also stems from the fact that the prime minister appointed him unexpectedly. Cohen himself explained the fouls attributed to him (using tycoon James Packer’s apartment and accepting tickets to a Mariah Carey concert) by saying he had assumed he was on the verge of leaving public service. If so, then his appointment was a surprise even to him, so it’s natural that he should feel grateful to the person who appointed him.

It is quite possible that Cohen is an excellent Mossad chief. Former Mossad officials, even those who don’t particularly like him, say that he was involved in some daring and important operations. Nevertheless, the combination of a love for the spotlight and a built-in weakness vis-à-vis the prime minister justifies asking whether, if Netanyahu wants to reveal another Mossad operation so as to make his recent United Nations speech especially meaty, is Cohen really in a position to assess whether it is right or wrong to do so?