Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his choice: the new head of the Mossad, Israel’s famed but secretive agency for espionage and innovative missions worldwide, will be Yossi Cohen. Agency chief Tamir Pardo is retiring.
Israeli newspapers, impressed by Cohen’s good looks and affable demeanor, note that he was a debonair operative for the Mossad starting in 1983 and was involved in a host of clandestine operations.
A few decades ago, it was illegal in Israel to name (or show a photograph of) the directors of the Mossad and the domestic security agency Shin Bet. Now spy chiefs are like celebrities — although their work is still conducted in secret, and their deputies and agents are not named.
On a serious note, Cohen’s top priorities will include secret diplomacy — and what officials hint as “unprecedented, astounding cooperation” — with intelligence chiefs of Egypt, Jordan, and Arab countries that don’t have open relations with Israel (Qatar, the UAE, and even Saudi Arabia). Cohen is said to be fluent in Arabic.
Yossi Cohen already has a good working relationship with the Obama Administration. As the head of Netanyahu’s National Security Council in recent years, he did a lot — to coordinate covert operations against Iran and its nuclear program — with his American counterpart, Susan Rice.
He also worked with the Americans when he was deputy chief of the Mossad and head of the Operations Directorate.
Cohen will have to keep the Mossad’s operational capabilities at a very high level, as Israel perceives itself surrounded by dangerous challenges. The agency is expected to continue as Israel’s clandestine long arm: for secret liaison relationships, collecting vital intelligence, and sabotage and assassinations where deemed necessary.
The ascent of Yossi Cohen to serve as the twelfth head of the Mossad should not come as a surprise, because he was the leading choice among the three candidates. However, because the prime minister struggles to make decisions and postpones them until the last minute, on Monday evening Netanyahu delivered his statement on Cohen almost an hour after it was scheduled — causing unnecessary drama over the appointment.
In the past, the appointment of a new Mossad chief was made in a conversation between the prime minister and the various candidates, after which a written statement was released to the media and the public.
However, this time, perhaps in order to heighten the drama and paint himself as a decisive leader, Netanyahu made the announcement live on camera, in a sort of press conference, but without allowing reporters to field questions.
Already in the midst of Netanyahu’s address, in which he described his considerations in choosing the candidate, he spoke of the diplomatic experience required of a Mossad chief, who sometimes must act as a kind of “second Foreign Ministry.” The moment that the prime minister said this, it was clear that his choice would be Cohen.
Cohen has the experience in all three areas which the prime minister discussed: in the diplomatic field, from his time working as Tamir Pardo’s deputy Mossad chief, and also from his tenure as head of the National Security Council; in the intelligence field, from his time as the head of the most important branch of the Mossad, the organization’s “bread and butter” – Tzomet (intersection) – the division responsible for locating, enlisting and running agents in order to gather the intelligence necessary to make decisions; and third, the operational aspect, in which Cohen also has abundant experience.
During his three decades in the Mossad, the organization was focused on exposing Iran’s illict nuclear progress. According to reports (and our book), impressive operations inside Iran included sabotage and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Netanyahu deliberated about the other two candidates up until the final moment. They each served as deputy Mossad chief as well. Ram Ben-Barak, who today serves as director-general of the Intelligence Ministry and “N,” who served as deputy Mossad chief up until a few weeks ago, are no less capable than Cohen — and they were certainly worthy candidates.
However, the prime minister chose Cohen because he has been close to him for the last two-and-a-half years. As Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor, Cohen led secret delegations abroad and provided recommendations on various issues tied to the prime minister’s activities.
Netanyahu held an orderly process of consultations, including personal meetings with the three candidates. He turned to outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and his predecessor Meir Dagan for their opinions of the candidates. Dagan told him that Cohen would be the best candidate.
A difficult task
Cohen, 54, is a married father of four and grandfather of one. He studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and joined the Mossad at the very young age of 22. In 1983 he trained to become a katsa (field intelligence officer), and from there began to climb the ladder of the organization.
He was the head of a station in Europe – locating, enlisting and operating agents from enemy states and terror organizations. He later served in various roles at headquarters near Tel Aviv, until he was appointed by Meir Dagan to be the head of Tzomet. He next was appointed Tamir Pardo’s deputy.
In announcing that Cohen would get the job, Netanyahu also discussed the importance of cyber warfare and the need to be at the technological forefront. Indeed, for more than a decade, the Mossad has leaned heavily on technology and its capabilities in the field do not fall short of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200, although on a smaller scale.
However, despite the Mossad’s impressive abilities, Cohen will have to adapt the organization to be able to face the new challenges posed by the shifting reality of the Middle East. This reality includes the disintegration of traditional states and the rise of terror organizations, including Islamic State, Sinai Province and Syria’s Nusra Front.
The Mossad, whose most basic strength is humint (human intelligence), will continue to operate as the main body in this field, but the goal of penetrating and enlisting agents in the new terror organizations will be much more difficult.
In the past, the Mossad, together with Military Intelligence, succeeded in gathering information and knowing what was happening in organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas (with the cooperation of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency). However, in the face of the unstable reality of brutal and religious terror organizations, such as Islamic State – this will not be an easy task.