Would Mossad's Chief Dare Rebuff Netanyahu?

Yossi Cohen has many connections to the premier and his close associates. It’s hard not to suspect that these ties have influenced him | Opinion

Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker
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Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker

Meir Dagan got a lot of credit for his independence as chief of Mossad. Dagan opposed the blueprint of the Second Lebanon War from the beginning; he supported a ground operation. He opposed the deal that freed kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit and opposed an Israeli attack on Iran. His successor, Tamir Pardo, deserves even more credit for his opposition to an attack on Iran.

Pardo and Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel (at the time, head of the IDF Planning Directorate) vehemently rejected such an attack when there was more preparation for it and it was more practical than during Dagan’s era. This doesn’t mean that Pardo’s position was necessarily correct, but it established a lengthy tradition of the Mossad chief being a strong and independent figure who isn’t deterred from expressing an opinion that’s the opposite of what the prime minister wants to hear.

Yossi Cohen was not a surprising appointment as Mossad head. In an investigative report, the Channel 2 television show "Fact" told a story that I had heard as well. Just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Cohen’s appointment, he spoke by phone to the man who the media had touted as the leading candidate for that job, N. The conversation ended without any summing up, but according to someone close to N., during the call N. was asked if he’d be loyal to the prime minister. N.’s associate believes that N.’s stuttering response to that problematic question sealed his fate.

If the story is true, it’s a scandal, of course. Two former senior agents in the Mossad told me, however, that Cohen’s career path was more suited to the top job than N.’s and made him a more natural candidate (Dagan also supported Cohen’s appointment). Cohen had performed well in senior positions and enjoys excellent interpersonal relations. It isn’t clear if he’s interested in politics, but for years he’s been acting like a politician.

Mossad chiefs over the years, especially those who came from within the organization, avoided politics. Not that it’s a dishonorable profession, but their DNA is just the opposite of the DNA of a politician.

Cohen is different. During his previous job at the Mossad, he didn’t hesitate to meet with a leading political strategist. He always kept channels open to leading businessmen, and that was particularly true when he served as head of the National Security Council. It’s no coincidence that he felt comfortable enough to ask Australian billionaire James Packer for seven tickets to a his then-partner Mariah Carey’s concert. It’s not for nothing that he felt it was reasonable to use Packer’s Tel Aviv apartment for free. Packer and his tycoon friend, Arnon Milchin, even offered Cohen a lucrative job.

These are not Cohen’s only connections to Netanyahu’s environment. He is on excellent terms with many of the premier's close associates. It’s hard not to suspect that these ties influenced him in his role as head of the NSC.

Netanyahu wanted to pass the natural gas framework – Cohen wrote an opinion stating that the matter was important to Israel’s foreign relations. Netanyahu wanted to cancel the international tender to build ships for the Israel Navy and deal directly with a German shipbuilder and the German government – Cohen wrote an opinion supporting the move, citing foreign relations and security considerations, of course. Cohen recommended – it’s unclear on what basis – that Israel purchase two anti-submarine warships. No one understood where that request came from, but Netanyahu supported it (until opposition from the Defense Ministry killed that idea).

At the end of 2015 Netanyahu thought that Israel needed a seventh, eighth and ninth submarine in its fleet. In the IDF and Defense Ministry there was a consensus that five, at most six, were enough. Cohen, in contrast, supported the purchase of nine submarines (and was then persuaded otherwise).

It’s hard to think of a single instance in which National Security Adviser Cohen thought differently than the prime minister. As a Mossad head who was appointed by the premier and is connected to him in so many ways – would he dare express a contrary position?