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צילום: מוטי קמחי
Yossi Cohen. Nicknamed 'the model' for his handsome appearance and meticulous clothing
Photo: Motti Kimchi
One of the world's most mysterious organizations gets a new boss
Wednesday will be Tamir Pardo's last day as head of the Mossad. How was Israel's secret service run under Pardo, who succeeded the famed but controversial Meir Dagan? Who is Yossi Cohen, the national security advisor and one of PM Netanyahu's closest associates, who will replace him, and what revolution did he bring to the organization when he was in charge of recruiting and operating its agents around the world? Ronen Bergman offers a peek into the secret world of Israeli spies.
An elegant brown wooden pole, named "The Mossad Rod," is respectfully stored in a closed room in the Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv. Displayed on one of its ends is the secret organization's symbol and its famous slogan, borrowed from a verse in the Book of Proverbs (11:14): "Where no wise guidance is, the people falleth; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.." The bottom of the pole is encircled by 10 golden rings, each of them bearing the name of one of the Mossad chief who ended their terms.

 

 

On Wednesday morning, the "Mossad Rod" will receive a new ring, its 11th one, and the name of the organization director ending his term that day, Tamir Pardo, will be imprinted on it.

 

While the rings are identical, each represents a completely different term. There is a deep difference between Pardo's term and the term of the owner of the preceding ring, Meir Dagan. It's reasonable to assume that the term of Yossi Cohen, who will replace Pardo that day and become the 12th Mossad director (the seventh to have grown within the organization) will be completely different, if only because of the major personality and outlook differences between them, alongside the regional environment in which the Mossad is required to operate and is undergoing dramatic and swift changes - the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear project challenge and the influence of the Islamic State.

 

Cohen and Netanyahu. A master in interpersonal relations, he won the prime minister's trust, but did get into arguments with other important players such as senior Shin Bet and IDF officials and some politicians (Photo: AFP)
Cohen and Netanyahu. A master in interpersonal relations, he won the prime minister's trust, but did get into arguments with other important players such as senior Shin Bet and IDF officials and some politicians (Photo: AFP)

 

When Cohen takes office, he will make history: The first Mossad chief to have grown and operated in the organization throughout almost all his years of activity, commanding Junction (Tzomet in Hebrew), the organization's biggest department which is responsible for recruiting and operating agents. Traditionally, most of the Mossad directors' bureau chiefs came from that department, but the head of the organization had never been appointed from there.

 

Cohen will be making further history due to the fact that for the first time, a head of the National Security Council is being promoted to a higher position and is not ending his career in that position.

 

* * *

The Mossad which Yossi Cohen is taking charge of Wednesday is a large organization, one of the biggest intelligence organizations in the Western world, which deals with a diverse and difficult target list. According to the Mossad charter, the organization's goals are: "Secretly collecting information (strategic, diplomatic and operative) outside the State's borders; conducting special operations beyond the State of Israel's borders; stopping hostile countries from developing unconventional weapons and arming themselves with them; thwarting terrorist activities against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad; bringing Jews from countries which are preventing them from immigrating and creating a defense framework for the Jews in those countries."

 

The definition of these goals clarifies just how different the Mossad is from other intelligence organizations: It is not only required to provide intelligence, but also to carry out special operations; it is responsible for both intelligence relations and diplomatic relations with countries which do not have open ties with Israel; it is required to protect not only the citizens of the State of Israel, but sees itself as the defender of all Jews in the world, and as an organization required to help smuggle Jews from hostile countries.

 

There has never been another intelligence service in the history of mankind which has been forced to engage in so many missions, which are so different from each other.

 

Cohen is arriving at this position after two prominent and strong-minded Mossad chiefs, who shaped the organization according to their image and outlook. In 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that he was looking for someone with "a knife between his teeth" for the organization's leadership, and decided to give the job to his subordinate and associate from the IDF, Meir Dagan.

 

After a period which was considered drowsy under Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, Dagan sent the entire organization into a state of operational madness. He narrowed down and emphasized the organization's list of targets, opened the organization to cooperation with moderate countries in the Middle East, which see the situation in the region as Israel sees it, and mainly pushed for more and more operations. The Mossad went back to being an important player vis-à-vis other intelligence organizations in Israel and vis-à-vis colleagues in the United States and Europe.

 

Meir Dagan. His passion for operations carried a price (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Meir Dagan. His passion for operations carried a price (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

 

Dagan, a man with particularly sharp senses, realized that the war is against enemies, but it also over consciousness. The thunderous operations attributed to the Mossad made his workers proud and perpetuated once again the myth about the most mysterious, efficient and lethal organization in the world. After every headline about a mysterious blast or assassination which no one knew who was behind but assumed it was the Mossad, the organization's website nearly collapsed with so many requests flowing in from candidates.

 

During that period in Dagan's term, Yossi Cohen made a name for himself as a meteor in the skies of the Mossad. Then, about 10 years ago, we wrote that he would make a possible candidate to serve as head of the organization one day.

 

As it is forbidden to identify active Mossad personnel by name under Israeli law, we gave the senior organization officials nicknames. We called Cohen "the model" due to his handsome appearance and meticulous clothing (he was the only one who had the courage to wear pink shirts in the ultra conservative Mossad working environment, and with cufflinks, no less). This nickname, which was later criticized as superficial and objectifying, was well received and many in the Mossad and the intelligence community began referring to Cohen that way.

 

Cohen himself, upon joining the Mossad in the early 1980s, chose the operational nickname "Callan," after the tough, brilliant, and sarcastic hero of a spy series from the 1970s, who does not hesitate to use the most aggressive methods, including torture and assassinations, in order to protect the United Kingdom's citizens. It wouldn’t be a wild guess that Cohen saw himself as very similar to that "Callan."

 

Yossi Cohen was raised in a religious family in Jerusalem and studied in a yeshiva. To this very day he (partially) and his family (fully) observe a religious lifestyle and he is very knowledgeable about the Mishnah and debates of Jewish wisdom.

 

He completed a case officers' course, one of the organization's three most important courses in which cadets learn how to recruit and run agents. Cohen stood out in the course thanks to his skills and was considered an outstanding student. One of the course instructors was legendary agent case officer, Yehuda Gil, who later nearly got Israel involved in a war in Syria when he brought false information from a "top agent" in the heart of the Syrian General Staff, which did not really exist, about a Syrian preemptive strike.

 

It is because of people like Gil and the tremendous abilities of case officers to manipulate that these people and this profession have always been treated in the Mossad with a certain amount of suspicion, which some sources see as the reason for non-appointments for the position of Mossad chief to this very day.

 

Cohen served as an agent recruiter and handler in Paris, and later as the head of the Mossad branch in a different European country. He was perceived as a rising star and as always being slightly different.

 

He did not only perform a job which appears partially similar to James Bond's job, but also looked, acted and spoke with Bond's smoothness. Cohen has a lot of charisma, plenty of personal charm, an ability to sweep people away and an ability to understand how they can be operated and manipulated. But he is also considered quite a difficult colleague and boss, and quite a few of the people who have worked with him suffered from his sarcastic tongue. He is not ashamed of the fact that he is a tough and demanding commander.

 

In 2000, he decided to take an unpaid leave from the organization in favor of private business and in order to dedicate more time to his children, including Yonatan, who has cerebral palsy (but still enlisted with the IDF and reached an officer's rank in an intelligence unit). In 2002, Cohen rejoined the Mossad in a new position, head of Junction's Special Operations Center, in which he achieved greatness.

 

As part of the center, a new and fascinating method was developed to adapt the ancient profession of agent operation to the modern era. Thanks to the combat doctrine which Cohen co-founded and led, the Mossad succeeded in infiltrating and hitting its main targets. Junction won five consecutive Israel Defense Prizes, the highest decoration awarded in this area, thanks to this method, which is so secret we can’t even mention its name. One of the prizes was personally given to Cohen for a key operation he initiated and commanded.

 

Meir Dagan was fond of Cohen (although the two argued often) and promoted him again and again. In 2006, Dagan appointed Cohen as head of the Junction Department and put him in charge of large parts of the Mossad's main target in the past 15 years: Infiltrating and harming Iran's nuclear program.

 

Junction's activity was incorporated into countless operations that the Mossad had to execute, based on information collected by, among others, the agents recruited by Cohen and his people. During this period, the Mossad succeeded in locating deliveries of equipment and raw material from around the world for the Iranian nuclear program. Some of these shipments were sabotaged. Some were seized in the countries they departed from after the Mossad, in cooperation with the American intelligence, warned of their existence.

 

Anonymous entities succeeded in planting lethal viruses in the nuclear project's computers and were able to locate six of the 15 senior scientists of the "weapon group," the military part of the nuclear program, and assassinate them. Israel never admitted its connection to any of this. But if the Mossad was indeed behind all of these operations, as the Iranians believe, Yossi Cohen played an important part in them.

 

* * *

Dagan's passion for operations carried a price. He often got into credit and authority quarrels with senior AMAN (IDF Military Intelligence Crops) and Shin Bet (Israeli General Security Agency) officials. The significant increase in the organization's manpower and activity generated a resonating failure: The Mossad's screening and control system completely missed the tragic Ben Zygier affair - the Mossad worker who got involved in terrible acts, was exposed, arrested and committed suicide in prison after realizing that his wife was about to leave him and that he would likely receive a two-digit-year prison term.

 

The significant increase in the volume of operations led to an exposure of the assassins and the methods of action in the assassination of Hamas activist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010. And if some press reports are true, different operational mistakes led to the exposure of joint Israeli-US Operation Olympic Games - now the Iranians know that sophisticated viruses hit their nuclear facilities.

 

Pardo inherited the fallout of all this, alongside Dagan's extremely strained relationship with Netanyahu. After the Dubai affair, the prime minister grew very hesitant in his approval of such complicated and risky operations. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon did say recently (in a very subtle hint in an interview to Holger Stark and myself in Der Spiegel) that "I am not responsible for the life expectancy of Iranian nuclear scientists," but there is no doubt that since the Dubai operation the public has been hearing much less about assassinations, sabotages and mysterious accidents in the Iranian nuclear program.

 

Netanyahu believed that the Mossad's activity may have well been utilized to the fullest and that he should consider a massive (and open) aerial strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Dagan thought otherwise and got into a serious conflict with Netanyahu. On his last day in office on January 6, 2011, in a very unusual move, he summoned a group of journalists to the Mossad headquarters and presented us with his criticism against the prime minister in detail. In that same conversation, Dagan estimated that "Mubarak's regime in Egypt is more stable than over" and that he would be succeeded by his son Gamal.

 

Dagan wasn’t the only one who failed to predict Mubarak's fall about a month later. The entire world and its intelligence services completely missed the Arab Spring, which became one of the key challenges that Dagan's successor, Tamir Pardo, had to deal with. The series of revolutions in the Middle East, which many right-wing elements and military personnel in Israel very quickly termed as a "Jihadist Winter," reshuffled the region and turned it into a place where it is more unclear than ever who are your friends and who are your enemies.

 

Tamir Pardo. Believes secrecy is not just an ideology but also a strategy (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
Tamir Pardo. Believes secrecy is not just an ideology but also a strategy (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

 

Pardo changed the organization's perception. He introduced clear measures for examining Israel's ability and the Mossad's success in thwarting the Iranian nuclear project. According to his perception, there is no point in counting how many nuclear scientists have ceased to live, but how far Iran actually is from the bomb.

 

Secrecy, as far as Pardo is concerned, is not just an ideology but also a strategy. According to his perception, an operation exposed in the media - be it the most successful operation - is in fact a failure. A reported incident attributed to the Mossad, Pardo believes, will lead to an investigation and to the exposure of ways of action and operational methods. It's true that buzz-creating headlines in the press about spine-tingling operations attributed to the Mossad produce important deterrence as well. But as far as Pardo is concerned, the enemy can be targeted - and deterred - through other, less thunderous means.

 

In a world which has become accustomed to reality shows, this is not a popular approach. It is not so good for newspaper headlines. On the other hand, the fact that in the past five years we have heard about less "mysterious explosions" and operations in the heart of the target countries, which are attributed to the State of Israel, does not mean that there have necessarily been less operations. A lot has happened in the past five years, and only very little has been published. Sometimes, the calm on the outside covers up a lot of secret action.

 

During Pardo's term, the Mossad succeeded in thwarting dozens of attempted terror attacks in joint operations of the Iranian intelligence and Hezbollah in a bid to avenge the death of Imad Mughniyeh by targeting Israelis and Jews outside the State of Israel and the Middle East.

 

Pardo devoted a special effort to the prevention of the smuggling of weapons and equipment to Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. The Israeli media are forbidden to report such issues, but press reports outside Israel attribute dozens of attacks on these supply routes in Sudan, Libya, Syria and Lebanon to the Israel Air Force. If the reports are true, it was Pardo's Mossad which provided the information.

 

The Mossad was able to provide Netanyahu with a lot of information on the secret talks conducted by the United States with Iranian representatives behind Israel's back in Muscat, Oman, and later with information from the talks between Iran and the world powers, information which alarmed Netanyahu when he discovered that the West had withdrawn during the talks from many of the red lines he had set.

 

The changes in the Arab world forced the Mossad to adapt itself at a record pace. For example, to adjust to the security relations with the Mohamed Morsi regime in Egypt, and later to the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime, and to Turkey's abandonment of the intelligence relations with Israel, in favor of developing security relations with Greece and other countries.

 

Pardo also executed a series of important structural changes. He established three administrations - technology, operations and intelligence - which coordinate all the activity on these issues. While in the past the special operations division, Caesarea, operated as a Mossad within the Mossad, completely isolated and separated, it is now subject to the operations administration and incorporated into the operations of other departments. Pardo also invested a lot in the technological areas, while at the same time greatly increasing the number of case officers in the organization - evidence of the importance he ascribes, even in today's cyber era, to the classic field of human intelligence.

 

Pardo also improved the relationships with other security bodies in Israel. His relations with IDF Chiefs of Staff Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot and Air Force Commanders Ido Nehushtan and Amir Eshel were particularly close. Pardo's relationship with the Shin Bet was not as close but still polite and efficient, as was his relationship with the police, which the Mossad provided with guidance and help, particularly in the cyber sphere.

 

Pardo was unable to avoid one phenomenon which characterized Dagan's last days in office: A strained relationship with Netanyahu, particularly in terms of how to handle Iran and its agreement with the West. During many discussions, Pardo was among the only ones, if not the only one, who dared to speak honestly to the prime minister, even when his comments contradicted his doctrine.

 

Upon Pardo's appointment as Mossad chief, Netanyahu appointed Cohen as his deputy. The relations between Cohen and Pardo in the two and a half years in which they served as Mossad chief and his deputy were not great.

 

According to the Mossad's internal covenant, and in order to ensure continuous leadership in case the Mossad chief travels abroad, has lost contact or is unable to continue functioning, the deputy must be exposed to the all the information in the Mossad chief's hands. Cohen has been heard claiming that Pardo is excluding him or at least avoiding giving him essential roles and authorities. Pardo's associates argued that the Mossad chief felt Cohen was trying to act behind his back in order to ensure that he would be the one to replace the Mossad chief in due course.

 

In August 2013, when Cohen ended his term as deputy Mossad chief, Netanyahu announced his appointment as national security advisor, saying that "Cohen's special skills make him highly worthy of the position."

 

Yossi Cohen took a huge and triple gamble when he accepted Netanyahu's offer. First of all, because the position of national security advisor has almost always been the last in a person's career, and in any event, it was not seen as a step to a higher position in the defense establishment.

 

Secondly, because Cohen aimed to use the position in order to close gaps in areas which he had not dealt with before in the Mossad - foreign relations, analysis and strategy - but the National Security Council's unclear status did not guarantee that he would succeed in closing those gaps.

 

Thirdly and most importantly, the person in that position has to work very closely with the prime minister. Such closeness to the boss could yield results in two opposite directions. The numerous hours he spent with Netanyahu, who is known as quite a difficult boss, to say the least, could have also developed differently.

 

Only few people have managed to survive and maintain good relations with Netanyahu for such a long period of time. But Cohen, who is a master in interpersonal relations, won Netanyahu's trust.

 

On the other hand, Cohen managed to get into arguments with other important players such as senior Shin Bet and IDF officials and some politicians. At least partially, Cohen is not to blame. Netanyahu simply paints everyone in his own colors, and the ones who were incapable of criticizing Netanyahu saw Cohen as a convenient punching bag.

 

Cohen's gamble paid off, and about a month ago Netanyahu announced that he had he found Yossi Cohen to be "the most suitable person with leadership skills and professional understanding" to lead the Mossad in the next five years.

 

Now he must prove that it was the right decision. Cohen will have to continue the same process he dealt with in the Junction Department - adjusting to the time and place, but not just as a middle-ranking commander in one division, but as head of the entire organization.

 

The Mossad's main challenge remains Iran. It's very possible that in the coming years, perhaps even earlier, Israel will have to make a tough decision on this matter. Now, after the agreement between Tehran and the West, Israel has been left alone, Netanyahu has been left alone, to decide whether - given established information, if and when it arrives, that Iran has re launched the military angles of its nuclear project - to order an attack on the atom facilities or to accept Iran's existence as a radical Shiite nuclear power. What will Cohen advise him in this deliberation?

 

Iran has been at the top of the Mossad's assignment list for 15 years now, but Cohen's challenge is relatively more complicated than the challenges faced by Dagan and Pardo. First of all, because the Iranian intelligence is much more aware of what the Mossad is capable of doing - from plating lethal viruses in computers operating the centrifuges to assassinating nuclear scientists.

 

Secondly, because the current prime minister approves much fewer dangerous operations compared what he approved until the Dubai operation and definitely compared to what his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, approved.

 

Thirdly, because the United States, which helped Israel significantly in the past decade, is now sanctifying a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and has not only almost completely halted the active intelligence cooperation (as opposed to exchange of information) with Israel on the Iranian issue, but is also indicating that it is unhappy with some operations conducted by Israel on its own.

 

Dealing with the Mossad's other preferred target - the regional terror linked to Iran and Syria (Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic jihad) includes new challenges as well. For example, Hezbollah's claims that it exposed a key agent for Israel in its foreign operations Unit 910, and that Israel succeeded in killing Imad Mughniyeh and foiling the attempts to avenge his death thanks to information received from that man. Beyond the credit that should be given to the Mossad for managing to recruit the man in the first place, if the reports are true, then this is a significant loss and perhaps partial blindness towards the organization.

 

Hamas, on its part, has moved its headquarters to places where the Mossad would find it difficult to carry out aggressive activity, such as Turkey, which will definitely not accept assassinations of Hamas leaders on its territory (the Turks suspect that Israel's flames were the ones which burned a hole in the interior of one of the protest vessels they had planned to send following the Mavi Marmara affair).

 

Another Mossad mission, a very difficult one, is protecting Israeli representatives and Jewish facilities around the world. Such targets have been attacked by both Hezbollah and the Islamic State. It seems like a serious threat, but "it will be much more difficult and complicated for the Mossad to operate in the West nowadays," says a former senior Mossad official. "We are not just talking about the risk coming from a few PLO factions, like in the 1970s, but about numerous global jihad organizations and cells, which are weakly linked, if at all, and thousands of ISIS volunteers who are about to return from the Middle East.

 

"Besides, this time, unlike in the 1970s, Europe's intelligence services are also trying - doing a better or not as good job - to operate on the exact same targets, and they really wouldn’t want the Mossad to get in their way.

 

"And one more thing. In the current political climate and the negative attitude towards Israel, assassination attacks which were forgiven at the time, even if they failed, would not be forgiven today."

 

If Cohen wishes to be considered as a partner for conversation with equal rights in today's intelligence community, he must provide added value from the Mossad, unique information about the Islamic State (Photo: AP)
If Cohen wishes to be considered as a partner for conversation with equal rights in today's intelligence community, he must provide added value from the Mossad, unique information about the Islamic State (Photo: AP)

 

ISIS is an international challenge. The Mossad is interested in being involved in the efforts to tackle it. More than a decade ago, Israel made a certain contribution to the war on al-Qaeda, the West's main rival at the time. For example, it was thanks to an Israeli intelligence source that the Americans knew about the decision made by Osama bin Laden and his deputy and successor upon his death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to pack up and withdraw from their activity in the West.

 

If Yossi Cohen wishes to be considered as a partner for conversation with equal rights in today's intelligence community, he must provide added value from the Mossad, unique information about the Islamic State organization.

 

The Mossad can provide the West, and mainly the United States, with further value by monitoring the manner and abilities of the old-new guest in the region - the Russian army and Putin's intelligence community, which are strengthening their foothold in Syria. The US has few intelligence abilities in this area, particularly in the human field. If the Mossad is able to close at least some of the gaps, the CIA will be grateful.

 

Another field is the world of cyber which is taking the lead from all worlds of intelligence. The Mossad's ability to fight the fourth dimension has been greatly improved thanks to Cohen's serious competitor for the position of Mossad chief, N., who served as head of the Mossad's technological division for a long and important period of time and left the position recently. During that period, the division tripled its manpower and became involved in countless operations for the first time in its history.

 

It was a major leap forward, but the development of the cyber world requires the Mossad chief to vigorously invest more and more in this field, where the attackers have the upper hand these days.

 

Cohen said recently in a lecture that Israel doesn’t have a "conventional" enemy (in other words, a regular army with tanks, planes and ground forces) which poses a serious threat and that such a war is not expected soon. That's true, but there is also a capable enemy in the world of cyber, and the Iranians - as Military Intelligence Chief Herzl Halevi warned recently - are closing the qualitative gap with Israel in this area. The Mossad's job is to discover their plans and abilities in this field.

 

The relations between the prime minister, who is in charge of the Mossad, and the organization's director are critical. Without trust, the Mossad will find it difficult to function. But excessive closeness is not a good thing either. Prime Minister Golda Meir had too much faith in the heads of the intelligence services and the IDF and got the Yom Kippur War - the surprise attack by Arab states in October 1973. Prime Minister Menachem Begin trusted the IDF and Mossad's promises that the Christians in Lebanon would help Israel "get rid" of the PLO members and ordered the tragic invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which got Israel entangled in 18 years of occupation.

 

Excessive closeness can be harmful not only at times of war but also in missing the opportunity for peace. Meir Amit, the third Mossad director (1963-1968), determined, as he told me once, that "the Mossad must also be the one to advance peace, rather than just engage in preparations for war and victory." He launched a battle against Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, demanding that he be allowed to travel to Egypt and meet with the minister of defense, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, after a secret project which led to the establishment of secret ties with him, but failed. The Six-Day War broke out a year later.

 

There is a difference, an important difference, between all the roles Cohen has filled until now and his next role at the top of the pyramid. He has nowhere to advance from here. It's very difficult, even for a prime minister, to oust a Mossad or Shin Bet chief once they have begun their job. The Mossad chief must report to his supervisor, the prime minister, but he must also report to his thousands of subordinates, the ones he meets every day when he arrives at the Mossad chief's bureau.

 

The Mossad people are known to be critical and sarcastic, as Cohen himself, and they won’t spare him their criticism if he becomes a person who only fulfills the desires of the prime minister, who is leading a policy which many in the Mossad perceive as right-wing and wrong, if not more than that.

 

Among quite a few of the directors of Israel's intelligence arms throughout the years, assuming the position and the confidence which came along with it later on led to a significant change, to the development of an independent opinion and stance which they insisted on, even vis-à-vis a strong-minded prime minister or defense minister with little patience for disagreements.

 

Will Cohen establish an independent and assertive opinion too? Will he also lead secret diplomatic moves? Only time will tell. In the Mossad's case, to be more accurate, time may tell - but only a small circle of people who are in on the secret.

 

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