Mossad chief Yossi Cohen makes his mark as Netanyahu ally on Iran

Cohen’s stamp includes a publicly presented aggressive position on issues involving Iran, in line with Netanyahu’s.

PM Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen (photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
PM Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
In running the Mossad for just over a year and a half, Yossi Cohen has clearly placed his stamp on the revered spy agency, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally gotten from it the backing he has always desired.
Cohen’s stamp includes a publicly presented aggressive position on issues involving Iran, in line with Netanyahu’s; the Mossad’s dive into the private sector; the alleged assassination of Tunis-based Hamas engineer Muhammad al-Zawari; and a new recruiting focus aimed specifically at women.
Netanyahu has worked with five Mossad directors, but had no real partner before Cohen. After decades in the Mossad, Cohen’s last job was as Netanyahu’s personal national security adviser. So, before appointing him, Netanyahu knew Cohen agrees with him on Iran.
In his 1996-1999 term, the prime minister inherited Danny Yatom, who later joined the Labor Party, from Ehud Barak.
Yatom’s resignation and Efraim Halevy’s appointment as Mossad director came about partially by circumstances connected to the 1997 botched assassination of Khaled Mashaal, a high-ranking Hamas official at the time who later rose to become the organization’s chief. But Halevy also had policy differences with Netanyahu and emerged as a major critic.
Efraim Halevy at JPost Annual Conference (Marc Israel Sellem)Efraim Halevy at JPost Annual Conference (Marc Israel Sellem)
Two Mossad directors who served Netanyahu in his 2009- 2016 terms, Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, contradicted him both in private and in public. They saw Iran as less imminently dangerous than the prime minister did. Some even argue that Dagan was one of the primary forces who stopped Netanyahu from launching an air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2009-2010. The Obama administration quoted Pardo’s statement and Mossad information provided in his tenure about Iran not being an existential threat to support its 2015 nuclear deal, when Netanyahu was trying to rally support against it in the US.
Things with Cohen have been different. Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office took the unusual step of leaking Cohen’s presentation to the security cabinet regarding threats posed by Iran.
According to the leak, Cohen said that Iran is moving in to fill vacuums in countries in the Middle East created by the retreat of ISIS, and that this expansion is currently the central development in the region.
He added that Iran has not given up its ambitions to be a nuclear threshold state, and that its deal with the West has strengthened Iran’s aggressive tendencies.
These assessments are in lockstep with Netanyahu’s messaging and with one of his goals of convincing the Trump administration to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, an issue being intensely debated among Trump’s advisers.
Negotiators during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks were held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015 (Reuters)Negotiators during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks were held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015 (Reuters)
Within days it was also leaked that Cohen was traveling with a special delegation to Washington to meet with the Trump administration. The leak indicated that Cohen would express Israel’s disapproval of the US’s proposed resolution of the Syrian civil war as it did not appear to include blocking Iran from getting a foothold near Israel’s northern border. Cohen also accompanied Netanyahu to important talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These leaks were made selectively by the Prime Minister’s Office, so it is possible that Cohen’s full assessments are not as supportive of Netanyahu’s as the leaks suggest. But even before he became Mossad director, Cohen had been closely associated with Netanyahu’s views on Iran.
Probably the biggest idea that Cohen has put forth is the Mossad publicly establishing an investment fund for start-ups working in technologies relevant to its needs as a spy agency.
This idea has garnered nearly universal praise, even from people like Yatom, who normally are critical of Netanyahu’s policies.
Earlier this week, Yatom told The Jerusalem Post that Cohen’s new fund was a “very good idea,” noting that “the CIA has a similarly big fund.... Some of the most important CIA technologies come from cooperation with civilians.”
Yatom demurred, though, that the idea of the Mossad working with the private sector was not entirely new and that the Mossad had done this in the past, but adding that it had “never formally established a fund specifically for start-up companies” geared to the Mossad’s needs.
The former Mossad chief said that Cohen’s concept made sense “in a changing world in which a large number of key technologies today come from start-ups, and the Mossad wants to influence the trend.”
Asked if expanding more into the private sector created a greater risk of an Israeli-style Edward Snowden gaining top-secret clearance and leaking Mossad secrets to the public, Yatom said that “even today, there is a risk of a Snowden.”
He said the Mossad will “need to check every start-up,” just as the defense establishment checks its various partners such as Rafael and Elbit.
In terms of one of the Mossad’s calling cards – spying on and assassinating terrorists – while the impression is that Cohen’s Mossad has been as active as ever, one particular operation presumed by many to have been the work of the Mossad grabbed the public imagination.
On December 15, 2016, Zawari was gunned down by a hail of bullets while driving near his house.
Other than rental cars, cellphones and silencers, there were basically no trails to follow to establish responsibility – the mark of a highly professional hit.
Zawari was an aeronautical engineer who manufactured drones for Hamas, and possibly Hezbollah. Reports from Tunis indicated that he also designed an unmanned naval vessel that could attack other sea vessels from under the water.
Speculation – ranging from US intelligence to Hamas to Tunis – has focused on the Mossad, with Tunisian reports that the Mossad had previously carried out meticulous surveillance of Zawari over a number of weeks.
Even as Israel never formally took credit for the hit, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, as reported first by the Post from a December 20 legal conference, heavily hinted at the Mossad’s involvement.
Presuming this was Cohen’s operation, he showed that the Mossad has found the answer to pulling off assassinations in an age when most everything seems to be caught on video.
The Mossad’s alleged assassination of top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in 2010 in Dubai was considered a major failure because eventually video footage was dug up which revealed all of the agents’ identities.
While between five to 10 foreign suspects have been rounded up and questioned by Tunisia, it could be that all of the suspects were duped or otherwise used by actual Mossad agents to carry out any transactions that could be videotaped.
Nine months past those arrests, no video footage has emerged, and Hamas and others are still complaining that Tunisian investigators have not finished their probe (apparently because they have no leads).
Another area where Cohen has broken new ground was his January push to focus on recruiting women. The Mossad has had women in its ranks throughout its existence. So what made Cohen think it was important to find even more female than male recruits for the organization? Former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben-Barak has told the Post that women serve as Mossad agents on average for much shorter terms. He said, “It is hard to be a warrior and a mother; it is harder on the household” than for men, “since there is no such thing as half a warrior.”
He has estimated that if many men serve in the Mossad for 15 years, many women may serve only for five years, and so more of them must be recruited.
Yatom told the Post “there always were women. But there are things that women can do that men can’t do,” noting that he meant specifically in operational and not only administrative roles.