Yossi Cohen took over as the Mossad's 12th director on Wednesday at the intelligence organization's headquarters in Glilot, north of Tel Aviv. He is replacing Tamir Pardo who retires after 35 years in the agency, five of them as its head.
For the last two and a half years Cohen served as national security adviser to the prime minister and as head of the National Security Council. This capacity and proximity to Benjamin Netanyahu gave him the edge over two other senior Mossad officials in the running for the job.
Netanyahu trusts Cohen and assigned him secret and sensitive missions: among them mending relations with Turkey, improving ties with the Obama administration, which he did via his good contacts with his American counterpart Susan Rice, and clandestine meetings with Arab leaders and officials.
Cohen is a typical product of the Mossad where he has served in various operational and managerial capacities since 1983, but he was not a typical recruit. He was born in Jerusalem in 1961 to a right-wing religious family with roots going back eight generations in the city. He graduated from schools affiliated with the National Religious movement, which is today represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party.
When Cohen joined the Mossad as a young cadet, it was rare to see a religious candidate wearing a kippa. Cohen, who later left off wearing a head covering, was the only religious cadet in his class and, as a result, was the brunt of many jokes. The Mossad, at the time, was practically off limits to people like him.
But Cohen was communicative, charming, easygoing, focused and manipulative – all the traits needed to be a good case officer, known in Mossad parlance as “katza,” the Hebrew acronym for a collection officer. A Mossad case officer is expected to be able to establish contact with potential agents, and if successful in recruiting an agent, running that agent and extracting the required information the agent may possess. The case officer’s main responsibility is in the field of human intelligence (HUMINT), the bread and butter of the agency.
COHEN, WHO was labeled “ the model” by journalists for his dapper dress style that is in stark contrast to the typically informal Israeli code, rose through the rank and file. He began as a low-level case officer running Arab agents in Europe and later became chief of a Mossad station, operating from the Israeli Embassy in a major Western European city. After returning to Israel he was appointed by Meir Dagan, then Mossad chief, as head of the Tzomet (Junction) department in charge of case officers and their agents.
The years 2006-2010 until Dagan retired and was replaced by Pardo were the heyday of Mossad operations to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb. Dagan put Cohen in charge of these efforts. From his Tzomet office he ran a special operations center that coordinated with all the other relevant departments.
During that period at least five key Iranian nuclear scientists were killed – their deaths were attributed by foreign sources to the Mossad – a few more wounded and probably many more warned that they would be well advised to stop working for the secret military project.
Mossad, together with the US National Security Agency, was also said to have created the Stuxnet computer worm, which targeted systems in charge of centrifuges in the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran, causing severe damage. Other operations included preventing shipments from reaching Iran, either by damaging the equipment at the port of departure, or by threatening companies not to do business with Iran, or by asking local security services to intercept the shipments.
Another important operation during these years was the killing in 2008 in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the “Defense Minister” of Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite-Lebanese organization. According to American media, the assassination was a joint Mossad-CIA operation but other foreign sources claim that though the CIA was privy to the planning and intention, its operational role was marginal and most of the work was “blue and white” (the colors of the Israeli flag).
Yet, Cohen’s team was not immune to failure. The most damaging of his failures was the case of Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew who was recruited to work for a European-based front company of the Mossad, which, while selling equipment to Iran, tried to penetrate its nuclear program.
Zygier boasted about his role and exposed the operation. Agents had to be recalled and tens of millions of dollars were wasted. Zygier was jailed and committed suicide in prison in 2010, causing some fuss when the case was publicized in the media.
It is hard to assess whether the daring Mossad operations, combined with international sanctions, prevented Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb or whether Tehran made a well calculated decision to stop short of an actual weapon.
Either way, Iranian scientists and military men have already mastered the know-how and acquired the technology, equipment and materials necessary to build a bomb should they decide to do so.
ALL THESE anti-Iran operations were carried out simultaneously and required above all agents in the right places, who needed solid and accurate information. Although the reasons cannot be revealed, in 2011, then president Shimon Peres granted Cohen and his Tzomet team the Israel Security Award, and in the same year he was also promoted to deputy head of the Mossad.
Cohen’s return to the organization where he spent most of his career was well received.
Cohen knows the agency and most of its staff inside out. Mossad’s organizational behavior and culture are rooted in years of experience and meticulous care to detail, but the spy agency needs to be responsive and flexible in order to meet the challenges of the new Middle East reality.
This is a region where several states – Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – are in various stages of collapse; American power and influence are dwindling and Russia is taking full advantage; new actors, such as ISIS and the Kurds are emerging, and the Sunni-Shi’ite rift is widening.
These new realities create opportunities but also risks for the Mossad’s new head.
Although his years at the National Security Council helped to upgrade his strategic understanding, Cohen is more of a skillful operative than a thinker and will have his work cut out for him.
Cohen wants to make the Mossad more combative and daring than it was under Pardo and return to the “good old days” when Dagan led the organization. He strongly believes, like Netanyahu, that Iran remains Israel’s No. 1 enemy – that it continues to support terrorism and has never abandoned its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. One of his major tasks will be to monitor and to verify that Iran is not once again cheating the international community and violating the July 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the world powers.
Cohen will also continue to carry out on behalf of Netanyahu sensitive missions and deliver messages to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and even Turkey. Netanyahu hopes to establish an anti-Iranian coalition with those countries, but their leaders are reluctant to go out into the open and be seen in the company of Israel unless there is progress on the Palestinian issue. The Mossad has no input on the Palestinian issue, perhaps Israel’s most challenging front, Colleagues who know Cohen from their work in the agency say that from an early stage he dreamed of reaching the top.
Now his dream has come true and his test will be to provide the prime minister, who appointed him, with a true picture of the reality faced by Israel and not one that is tainted by politics.Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman
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