[This article was originally written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Note some details of Mossad personnel’s careers are limited by censorship requirements in Israel.]
The hush-hush conversations in the hallways of the Mossad headquarters in Glilot, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv, over the last few weeks have danced around the question: Who will replace the agency’s director, Tamir Pardo?
Curiosity surrounding his would-be replacement intensified when Pardo replaced his incumbent deputy – whom the censor has asked only be identified as N. – by a new person now known as A.
These deputies came from the two most prominent Mossad operational units. N., like Pardo, originated in and later commanded the unit known as Keshet, which directs surveillance and break-ins into “static objects” – offices and equipment belonging to adversaries, where bugs and cameras are installed and computers infiltrated.
A. comes from perhaps an arguably more critical unit, Caesarea, which is in charge of sending agents on operations in enemy lands. Since a decade ago when the Mossad was restructured, the deputy head has also overseen the Operations Directorate, which houses all of the organization’s operational units.
Pardo is no stranger to hasty in-house shuffling. In his four-and-a-half years in office, he has had four deputies. In this sense, he has continued the atmosphere of restlessness that permeated the tenure of his predecessor, Meir Dagan, who whimsically replaced his deputies like a new pair of socks.
Nevertheless, the answer to the question of who will replace Pardo depends on another issue: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend Pardo’s term, which is due to expire at the end of 2015?
Unlike Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), where the head is legally limited to a five-year term with the option for the cabinet to extend it for another year, there is no Mossad law on the books. The Mossad, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Justice Ministry have been struggling for the last seven years to draft such a law.
Witness the results: The almost-mythological Isser Harel held the office for 11 years until 1963; his successor, Meir Amit, lasted just five years. Yitzhak Hofi served in the post in the ’70s for eight; as did Dagan, who served from 2002 to 2010.
The media adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to answer The Jerusalem Post’s questions on this matter. But insiders and officials familiar with the Mossad estimate that it is very unlikely Netanyahu will extend Pardo’s term beyond five years in December.
This is not to say that Pardo was a bad manager or failed in leading the Mossad in its new challenges and frontiers. While Pardo might lack some of Dagan’s charm and charisma, he has continued in the footsteps of his predecessor.
According to foreign media reports, the Mossad under Pardo was less involved in assassinations. Only one Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in 2011, in comparison to five when Dagan was in office.
But this does not indicate that Pardo is more hesitant and less daring than Dagan. It is more likely that those who were in charge of the assassination campaign – which was only one measure in a broader campaign to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – reached the conclusion that the method was outdated and had exhausted itself as a useful tool.
Yet Pardo continued to see Iran as the Mossad’s number-one target — for gathering information, as well as other possible operations — with Hezbollah as the second.
Although the Mossad basically remained a human intelligence (humint) organization – recruiting and running agents as sources for information were its bread and butter under Pardo – it expanded its sigint (intelligence derived from electronic and communication messages used by the targets) and cyber capabilities; and it improved relations with its worldwide counterparts, especially America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
Indeed, last week CIA director John Brennan visited Israel and met with Pardo and other senior intelligence chiefs, exchanging estimates about Iran’s nuclear program and the likely impacts of the P5+1 negotiations – which are reaching a crucial point, as talks are set to conclude at the end of the month.
Another important development in the Mossad in the last five years is the enlargement and upgrade of its research and analysis department, to the degree that it is now almost equal to its big brother – the research department of IDF Military Intelligence, which is still charged with providing the cabinet with a national intelligence estimate.
Yet Pardo will probably be replaced in six months, mainly because he didn’t get along well with Netanyahu. A well-noted incident occurred two years ago when Pardo, in a closed-door meeting with business executives, asserted that the Palestinian issue trumps Tehran as Israel’s biggest national security problem.
Saying that directly contradicted his boss, who time and again has beaten the Iranian drum, calling it an existential threat for the Jewish state.
In the corridors of the Mossad and the Prime Minister’s Office as well as in the media, four names are mentioned as potential successors to Pardo.
One is an outsider, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of the Israel Air Force, and the other three are from within the Mossad.
It’s more probable that the next head of Mossad will come from within the organization’s ranks – and the remaining three candidates served in the Mossad’s operational units. One such candidate is the above-mentioned N., who until recently was Pardo’s deputy.
Another is Ram Ben-Barak, also a product of the Keshet department. As a young operative, he was arrested together with three team members by police officers near a building in a European city under suspicious circumstances.
The incident didn’t stain his career, and he reached the top echelon to serve as a deputy to Dagan; he then went on sabbatical and worked for the Brookings Institution in Washington, and most recently was director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
But the leading candidate is Yossi Cohen, who specialized as a case officer in recruiting and running agents from Arab countries, was head of the department charged with these tasks and served as Pardo’s deputy until two years ago. He was then chosen by Netanyahu to be his national security adviser and lead the National Security Council. Cohen, who managed to develop friendly – even warm – relations with Netanyahu’s family, is the favorite for the Mossad top job.
In an interesting twist, if he is nominated at the end of 2015, two out of three Israeli intelligence agencies will be led by persons by the name of Cohen – with the prospective Mossad head joining Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet. [In Jewish tradition, the Cohens — or Kohanim — were the high priests: in this case, the high priests, perhaps, of espionage.]