On Tuesday morning, David Barnea got into his car, accompanied by his bodyguards, and traveled 13 kilometers from his home to his new office, on the third floor of Mossad headquarters at Glilot, north of Tel Aviv. The tasks facing the espionage agency’s 13th director are numerous and they span the globe. But the most urgent one of all is not gathering intelligence on Hezbollah or planning a special operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
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Barnea’s most important challenge is within his own house: He must return the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, to use the Mossad’s official name – an agency with plentiful resources and insufficient oversight – to what it was before the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Yossi Cohen. The idea is not to erase the institution’s achievements under Cohen’s five-and-a-half-year term. But Barnea must reinstill within the organization the values of modesty, secrecy, disregard of political considerations and the avoidance of elbow-rubbing with tycoons and politicians.The Mossad must return to being an organization with thousands of employees, rather than seeming to be a one-man show.
Since its founding 72 years ago, the Mossad has known upheavals that reflect the changes in Israeli society. Its first two directors, founder Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel, were political appointees.
They served the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. But they also marked the path and left their respective professional marks. Since 1963, when Meir Amit was appointed to head it, even though Labor Party forerunner Mapai continued to control the state, Mossad became a genuine state institution, one that complies with the directives of the cabinet but for which the state and the society come before the party and the government. Mossad chiefs shunned the spotlight and conducted themselves punctiliously. Mossad old-timers can still recall how Yitzhak Hofi cut up vegetables for salad with his operatives in safe houses during foreign operations.
It was forbidden for employees to accept gifts. When an agent gave his handler a present, or the head of a department or the Mossad chief himself received a gift from a counterpart – even something personal, such as an engraved pistol or knife, they had to either obtain approval from the Civil Service Commission to keep it, or give it to the Israel State Archives. There’s no need for nostalgia or idealization.
Times change, Israeli society stopped being ascetic, and so did the Mossad. Former heads and senior officials went into politics or business and saw to their future. Some even engaged in arms dealing and military support for foreign clients. But the founding principles were maintained, including the most important one: setting a personal example.
The era of Yossi Cohen will be remembered as a departure from the Mossad’s core values. He promoted a personality cult around himself and took outsized credit for the successes that are above all the result of teamwork on the part of dozens, if not hundreds, of dedicated employees at Mossad headquarters and abroad – including in the target countries, the operational penetration of which put lives at risk. Cohen rubbed elbows with businessmen such as Arnon Milchan and James Packer. The latter reportedly let Cohen use a suite in his Tel Aviv hotel and gave him $20,000 as a gift for the wedding of the Mossad chief’s daughter. Cohen met in mysterious circumstances with the diamond magnate Dan Gertler in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when the Trump administration was deliberating over lifting sanctions on Gertler.
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In recent weeks Cohen discussed with Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary in the Trump administration, the establishment of an investment fund in the Gulf states, with which the Mossad has close ties and strategic interests, and to which Cohen was a frequent visitor.
The outgoing Mossad chief also hosted in his office journalists, commentators, PR agents and politicians. In exchange, they complimented him and wrote flattering portraits of him. In some of these interviews, Cohen announced plans to run for prime minister in the future.
There is nothing wrong with political or professional ambition, but there’s definitely a problem when the incumbent director of Mossad speaks about it in public. This kind of talk, as well as his overly close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, are clear politicization. This is compounded by Cohen’s fervent efforts, shortly before Israel’s last election, to arrange for the prime minister to meet various Arab leaders. It’s obvious that this conduct spreads to both senior and junior members of the organization, who are sure that what’s good for the boss is good for the workers as well.
Cohen’s talent and capabilities as a creative intelligence agent, a resourceful operator and a daring commander cannot be ignored. They were expressed in Mossad’s core mission: the recruitment of high-quality agents, the theft of the nuclear archive in Tehran and the assassinations of Hamas and militant Islamist engineers around the world – including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Iran’s military nuclear program – that have been attributed to Mossad.
However, the successes attributed to the organization under Cohen should also not be overstated. Many of these operations are long-term. Each Mossad director lays the foundations for his successors and reaps the fruits planted by his predecessors.
I do not know Barnea personally, and have never spoken with him. Everything I know about him is from conversations with people who know him. I have no doubt that he understands the gravity of the hour and will do everything possible to rid the organization of the fanfare, idle talk, the PR and the politicization that have percolated throughout its ranks. Then he will also be free to attend to the old and the new missions of the Mossad.