Report alleges former Mossad chief threatened ICC prosecutor

The Guardian cites sources in controversial report claiming Yossi Cohen approached Fatou Bensouda during his time in office in attempts to dissuade her from probing Israel on alleged war crimes

UK-based news outlet The Guardian published an investigative report on Tuesday alleging former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen spearheaded a campaign to threaten and intimidate former International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, in an attempt to prevent her from opening a formal criminal investigation against Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Palestinian territories.
According to the report, Cohen made the threats during a series of meetings in which he tried to pressure her to abandon the investigation.
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ראש המוסד לשעבר יוסי כהן התובעת לשעבר של בית הדין הפלילי ב האג פאטו בנסודה
ראש המוסד לשעבר יוסי כהן התובעת לשעבר של בית הדין הפלילי ב האג פאטו בנסודה
Yossi Cohen, Fatou Bensouda
(Photo: Ido Erez, AFP)
According to The Guardian, Cohen's interactions with Bensouda took place in the years leading up to her decision to launch the investigation, which was announced in 2021, and did so with the approval of senior Israeli officials.
The report details that, according to a senior Israeli official, the reason for sending Cohen on this mission was the threat of prosecution against military personnel from the ICC. Another Israeli source, who was briefed on the alleged activities against Bensouda, said the Mossad's goal was to undermine her efforts or to get her to cooperate with Israel. According to the outlet, a third source described Cohen as an "unofficial messenger" of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Cohen's efforts are described by The Guardian as part of a nearly decade-long campaign by Israel to weaken the UN court: "Four sources confirmed that Bensouda had briefed a small group of senior ICC officials about Cohen’s attempts to sway her, amid concerns about the increasingly persistent and threatening nature of his behavior," the newspaper wrote.
According to the report, Cohen told Bensouda at one point, “You should help us and let us take care of you. You don’t want to be getting into things that could compromise your security or that of your family.”
The Guardian claims one of the individuals briefed on Cohen's actions testified that the then-Mossad chief used " despicable tactics" against Bensouda as part of an attempt to intimidate and influence her – which ultimately failed.
He compared Cohen's behavior to stalking, involving tracking and harassing someone. According to the report, the Mossad also showed great interest in Bensouda's family members and obtained transcripts of secret recordings of her husband which Israeli agents allegedly tried to use the material to undermine her credibility.
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בית הדין הפלילי בהאג
בית הדין הפלילי בהאג
International Criminal Court at The Hague
(Photo: REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw)

Mossad inside The Hague

The Guardian’s report added that shortly after Bensouda decided to open a preliminary investigation into Israel’s alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, she and senior members of her team began receiving warnings that Israeli intelligence was closely monitoring their work.
Two sources told the outlet that senior court officials suspected that Israel had cultivated sources within the ICC's prosecution department. One source told The Guardian that although the Mossad "left no trace," it was assumed the body was behind several actions brought to the attention of court officials.
According to the UK-based newspaper, the first contact between Cohen and Bensouda was made at the Munich security conference in 2017, where he introduced himself and had a brief conversation with her.
Several sources said that this was only the beginning, and claimed that in 2018, Cohen “ambushed" Bensouda in an unusual incident in a hotel suite in Manhattan. Bensouda, who was on an official visit to New York, arrived at the hotel for a meeting with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila, whom she had previously met several times due to the ongoing ICC investigation into crimes allegedly committed in his country.
In retrospect, sources claim, it appears that the meeting was a trap set for Bensouda: at some point, after her team was asked to leave the room, Cohen entered, making Bensouda and her team panic.
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Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila
Joseph Kabila
(Photo: Reuters)
The Guardian noted that it’s unclear why Kabila assisted Cohen but mentions that previous connections between the two had been revealed, including visits by Cohen to the Democratic Republic of Congo as Mossad chief at the time. According to the report, sources confirmed Cohen's visits to the country were partly related to ICC activities, and that Kabila played a significant role in the Mossad's "plan" against Bensouda.
Sources who spoke to The Guardian said that after the surprising "ambush" in New York, Cohen repeatedly called Bensouda and requested to meet with her, and when at some point she asked him how he obtained her phone number, he replied: " Did you forget what I do for a living?”

'Bad cop'

The newspaper's sources claim that initially, Cohen tried to build a relationship with Bensouda, playing the "good cop" and attempting to allegedly charm her to make her cooperate with Israel, but over time, he changed his tactics, starting to use "threats and manipulation."
According to the sources, Cohen's pressure on Bensouda escalated after she determined that there was a basis for opening a criminal investigation into Israel’s alleged crimes in Gaza, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem and met with her at least three times between 2019 and 2021 by his initiative.
“His behavior is said to have become increasingly concerning to ICC officials,” The Guardian wrote. According to a source familiar with Bensouda's testimonies, in their final two meetings, Cohen raised questions about her and her family's safety in a manner that made her believe he was threatening her.
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יוסי כהן, ראש המוסד לשעבר
יוסי כהן, ראש המוסד לשעבר
Yossi Cohen
(Photo: Yuval Chen)
It’s alleged that in one instance, he showed her copies of photos of her husband covertly taken when the couple visited London, and in another case, he hinted that if she decided to open a full investigation against Israel, it would have detrimental consequences for her career.
The Guardian’s sources claim that around the same time, Bensouda and ICC officials in The Hague discovered that information about her husband, who worked as an international relations advisor, was being circulated through diplomatic channels after the Mossad sought incriminating materials on the prosecutor and delved into the lives of her family members.
According to the newspaper, the organization led by Cohen allegedly obtained a cache of materials, including recordings and transcripts from a sting operation against her husband, although it’s unclear who conducted it. The Guardian noted that the possibility of fabricated information can’t be ruled out.
Regardless, the UK-based newspaper claimed that once the information reached Israel, diplomats attempted to undermine Bensouda's credibility, but failed to convince Jerusalem's allies of the allegations. The alleged smear campaign, it was claimed, was part of a coordinated effort by Netanyahu's government and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure the prosecutor and her team.

Prime Minister's Office: 'False and unfounded allegations'

The Guardian added that the revelation of Cohen's "operation" is part of a joint investigation by the British newspaper, +972 Magazine, and the Local Call website, which will soon be published, focusing on the "covert war" allegedly waged by Israeli intelligence agencies against the ICC for nearly a decade.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Karim Khan
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Karim Khan
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Karim Khan
(Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, AFP)
In response to the publication, the Prime Minister's Office told The Guardian: “The questions forwarded to us are replete with many false and unfounded allegations meant to hurt the state of Israel.” The report added Cohen himself didn’t respond to requests for comment, alongside Bensouda.
The outlet also contacted spokespeople for incumbent ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, who said that Khan had never met or spoken with the former Mossad chief, but his office allegedly received "Several forms of threats and communications that could be viewed as attempts to unduly influence its activities”.
Legal experts told the UK-based newspaper that if the Mossad indeed threatened or pressured Bensouda, it could be considered a criminal offense under Article 70 of the Rome Statute, on which the ICC is based.
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