On Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out a statement extending the tenure of Mossad Director Yossi Cohen for an extra six months.
Cohen was due to finish a five-year term in January 2021, and has now been extended through June 2021.
But two major questions came out of this announcement.
Why was it made now – coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) days after a series of explosions in Iran that appear to be a major setback for the regime’s nuclear program?
Why was Cohen’s tenure only extended by six months when usually if a Mossad’s chief tenure is extended, they are given at least an extra year?
There are two sides to the timing issue.
On one hand, Cohen was expected to get an extension long before this week.
He has been a highly successful Mossad chief by all accounts with successes against Iran in 2018, in combating coronavirus, in operations against Hamas’s weapons experts and in quiet diplomatic progress with Sunni Gulf countries as well as Sudan.
Also, Cohen is Netanyahu’s favorite of the five chiefs he has worked with.
This would suggest Cohen’s extension announcement on Sunday was not determined by the recent explosions in Iran, which might be at least partially connected with Israel.
On the other hand, the timing of the announcement was not typical.
When former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s tenure was extended, it was usually extended for a year and a year in advance.
This meant Dagan’s tenure was extended in February 2008 for nearly a full year until the beginning of 2009.
In June 2009, his tenure was extended again for a full year until at least June 2010.
Likewise, appointments of new Mossad chiefs can be announced as little as one month before the end of their tenure.
Cohen’s appointment was announced on November 29, 2015, and he started heading the agency on January 6, 2016.
Announcing a six-month extension for Cohen six months before his tenure was due to end does not fit into any of these paradigms.
This could be an argument for there being a connection between the current explosions in Iran and extending Cohen’s tenure – a tipping of the hat for an operation well done.
Cohen did succeed in penetrating Tehran with dozens of agents to pull off the already legendary operation in 2018 of seizing Iran’s nuclear secrets.
Further, The Jerusalem Post has indications that he is particularly concerned about advanced centrifuges, which appear to have been seriously damaged in the explosion near Natanz.
Still, this would be a highly risky move to appear to take credit for the current explosions by connecting them with Cohen. It could risk Iranian retaliation when Israel appears to have tried to keep its role (if it had any) quiet by having a new unknown allegedly Iranian group take credit for some of the explosions.
A more logical explanation for the timing is the decision followed Cohen’s strong performance in helping combat the coronavirus and the end of the multiple elections cycle, when such an announcement might have been problematic.
This still does not resolve the question of why Cohen’s term has been extended for only six months. Dagan was head of the Mossad from 2002-2011, about nine years.
Cohen is 100% on the same wavelength as Netanyahu in a way that none of his predecessors was, and the next Mossad chief may not be.
One would assume then that Netanyahu would want Cohen to remain running the Mossad for at least another full year, if not longer.
A six-month extension could be viewed as a lukewarm extension.
However, under the unity rotation deal, Netanyahu will no longer be prime minister as of November 2021.
That means if Netanyahu wishes to select Cohen’s successor, he needs to appoint that successor before then – such as by the June 2021 new end date he has given Cohen.
Another factor is that sources close to Cohen have made it clear in the past to the Post that he has an interest in politics, and some, including Netanyahu, say he could be Netanyahu’s successor to lead the Likud someday.
While he clearly is inspired by his work in the Mossad, if he wants to aim for politics, he needs to end that stage of his career and start the three-year cooling off period before which he cannot enter politics.
So Cohen may well have something to do with the recent explosions in Iran.But the timing of the announcement appears much more related to complex political calculations than to the imminent intelligence picture.