Security and Defense: Yoram Cohen’s daunting task

New Shin Bet head has vast experience within the organization; he'll need it to stay ahead of the enemy at a time of radical regional change.

Yoram Cohen 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Yoram Cohen 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Senior government appointments are not usually announced on live television. This week, however, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to create a precedent when, during a televised speech at a Jewish National Fund conference in Jerusalem on Monday, he announced his decision to appoint Yoram Cohen as the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Cohen is definitely qualified for the job. A 30-year Shin Bet veteran, he has served in all of the key roles – field agent, head of anti-Arab and Iranian espionage, head of the West Bank and deputy head of the agency – necessary for the post.
Nevertheless, his appointment stirred controversy in the media. Firstly, Cohen is an observant Jew – the first to be appointed to the top security post – and secondly, a Shin Bet official named Y. had been pegged as the preferred candidate until a national-religious campaign allegedly torpedoed his appointment.
Y. was, at one point in his career, head of the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division and provoked some settlers’ wrath by cracking down on right-wing extremism in the West Bank. According to some claims, he mixed his own political views into the way he dealt with the settlers.
Y. or Cohen? Cohen or Y.? The Afghani Cohen, or the Georgian Y.? The public has no feasible tools to determine which of the two is better suited to lead the Shin Bet, as is the case when it comes to appointments within the IDF, the Mossad, the police and the Prisons Service. No one can really know if one candidate will be better than the other.
The recent failed appointments of Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of General Staff and Eli Gavizon as Prisons Service commissioner and now the Cohen appointment clearly show just how politicized all of the country’s various security and defense organizations have become and to what extent people with political interests are meddling in the background.
NOT MUCH is known about the Shin Bet and the way it operates. It is responsible for preventing Palestinian terrorism and for gathering intelligence on terrorist groups, particularly in the Gaza Strip, but it also serves as the counterintelligence agency to prevent foreign espionage and works against Jewish extremists as well.
The lull in terrorism in the West Bank over the past few years is due to the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Palestinian Authority security forces. Cohen’s main and likely immediate challenge will be the Gaza Strip, as the recent round of hostilities has shown.
As head of the Shin Bet in the West Bank during the previous decade, Cohen was instrumental in developing the policy of targeted killings, used extensively against terrorists during the second intifada. In 2005, he was appointed deputy head of the Shin Bet.
A few months later, Galant was appointed OC Southern Command.
This was the period when IDF-Shin Bet relations began to blossom. Galant created special command posts which were manned by Shin Bet operatives, air force officers and Military Intelligence representatives who sat around the same table pooling intelligence and planning air strikes.
The results were seen in the opening salvo the IDF launched against Hamas in Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. The initial plan had likely been to open the operation with the assassination of a significant group of Hamas military chiefs, but when this did not work out, “Birds of Prey” was created – the opening air force operation during which 100 targets were bombed in just several minutes.
With the possibility of a new conflict with Hamas on the rise, Cohen will have to create the targets without Galant this time. Based on his writings during his year as a research fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy in 2009, Cohen appears to have been of the same school of thought as Galant that more could have been done to strike at Hamas.
“While Israel did not press its military advantage (this would have required more time and greater penetration of densely populated areas of Gaza), had it done so, the IDF undoubtedly could have destroyed Hamas’s military capabilities,” Cohen wrote in a paper summing up Cast Lead.
After the operation, Galant also walked away from Southern Command slightly frustrated.
While Hamas had been deterred until last week, he had pushed the political echelon and his superior, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, to carry out the third stage of the operation which would have meant a military push into the built-up areas in Gaza. His request was denied.
THE FAILURES of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the success of Operation Cast Lead showed that to defeat an enemy like Hamas or Hezbollah the use of ground forces was necessary.
All governments will likely want to refrain from having to launch a prolonged military operation in places like Gaza or southern Lebanon. For that reason, the more likely scenario – in the event of a future conflict with either Hamas or Hezbollah – is a significant display of air power with an immediate but likely smaller ground component.
There are different time frames thrown around at debates within the IDF with regard to Lebanon. Some believe that the IDF will need at least a week to conquer southern Lebanon; others speak about just a few days. In both cases though, there is the same understanding of what the outcome of such a conflict needs to be.
In addition, in both cases, the IDF no longer talks about a complete victory, but rather about defeating the enemy, which it believes is a more fluid term.
This is due to an understanding that in the event of a future war with Hezbollah, Israel will not set the guerrilla organizations’ destruction as its goal – likely an impossible task considering its political, social and military identities – but rather will look for a way to deal it a lethal blow and at the same time create the conditions for a positive diplomatic victory.
Senior IDF officers already talk about 1702 – a play on UN Security Council Resolution 1701 passed after the Second Lebanon War – and what they would like to see in it that would be different from 2006.
While UNIFIL has been effective in curbing Hezbollah activities, this is only true in the open areas, and as a result it stores almost all of its weapons inside villages where UNIFIL cannot go without first coordinating with the Lebanese Armed Forces. This would need to change.
The second change the IDF would like to see pertains to the Lebanese-Syrian border, where trucks cross weekly carrying weaponry for Hezbollah. While Israel can take pride in the occasional capture of arms ships like the Victoria and the Francop, the fact that intelligence officers openly admit that Hezbollah has more than 40,000 missiles demonstrates the weapons still flow.
The third change Israel would want to see in Lebanon is on the political level with the aim of minimizing Hezbollah’s influence over the political system and the country. This would require direct involvement by countries like France and the United States, which still have some pull in Lebanon.
A similar strategy would likely be applied in the event of a conflict with Hamas. There too, the IDF feels that while Cast Lead was successful in creating quiet for at least two years, the weapons still flow into Gaza, despite newfound international and particularly Egyptian understanding of the threat.
For the time being, though, this is all wishful thinking.
While Israel knows that both organizations are building up militarily, it too is enjoying the quiet. At least for as long as it lasts.