Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of yet another election, seems to be pulling every trick in the book.
The latest this week was reportedly that he would like to have Mossad director Yossi Cohen continue in some governmental capacity when his term ends this summer. Rumors persist that Netanyahu would like to see the spy chief join his political party.
This would be highly unusual, even though there is a history of former generals and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chiefs entering politics, since Mossad chiefs are supposed to have a cooling-off period.
In response to the reported announcement by Netanyahu, Cohen released an even stranger statement, denying any political affiliation with the prime minister or his Likud Party.
Democracy functions best when civilians are in charge and when there are checks and balances on the power of individuals.
Netanyahu has worked to erode many aspects of Israeli democracy over his nearly 12 consecutive years in power, centralizing power at the Prime Minister’s Office and taking away key decisions from the Foreign and Defense ministries. He conducts many policies himself, seemingly without even consulting others in his coalition.
Cohen has been a phenomenal head of Mossad. He has been praised by those who know him and the organization he is currently leading. He is said to have a good relationship with the prime minister, unlike some former intelligence heads such as Meir Dagan, who slammed Netanyahu repeatedly in 2016.
On the one hand, the Netanyahu-Cohen relationship running smoothly is good and is good for Israel’s security. On the other hand, turning the Mossad chief into a political tool does no favors for Cohen personally or for the agency he directs.
In August 2019, reports emerged that Netanyahu viewed Cohen or former ambassador to the US Ron Dermer as “fit to lead Israel” after he leaves office. Netanyahu has often heralded the credentials of the Mossad over the last years, lauding it for bringing out the secret nuclear archive from Iran and helping in the nation’s battle against the novel coronavirus.
However, it is not clear whether releasing this information has helped Israel or the Mossad, or helped Netanyahu’s political fortunes. Politicizing the organization or even releasing information that may improve Netanyahu’s political standing is a dangerous and toxic mix of national security and politics.
The ridiculous attempt to use the new relations with the United Arab Emirates for a photo-op prior to Tuesday’s election has continued unabated, to the point of harming relations with Jordan and embarrassing Israel. In normal countries, state visits are planned well in advance and have a large entourage. In Israel, Netanyahu does things without even consulting his foreign and defense ministers, as though it were a one-man, not even one-party, state.
Cohen is a valuable asset and national leader. After he leaves the Mossad, he can play an important role in helping Israel steer through the dangers that loom on the horizon. The question is whether that role will be tarnished by politics.
This is always the question mark when it comes to Netanyahu: Is he harming institutions by politicizing them? Was Danny Danon sent to the US because his popularity was growing? Was Gilad Erdan also packed off to the US for the same reason? No Israeli minister, for example, has visited the UAE since the peace deal was announced in August. The reason? Netanyahu won’t let any ministers visit there before him.
Why can’t Netanyahu share the limelight? Given his propensity for not wanting to build up others underneath him, it may be only a matter of time before Cohen’s rising star is stunted. Netanyahu should be careful not to politicize Cohen or the Mossad. It is essential for Israel’s security that its national security apparatus remain outside the political realm, despite the temptations to keep tarnishing it.