The Mossad is hoping for a little quiet as new era dawns

Why did the interview given by Yossi Cohen to Ilana Dayan spark anger? Will the Mossad carry out fewer "daring operations" under Barnea? And who is expected to be selected soon as the next head of the ISA? A column by Amir Rapaport

Photo: Haim Zach, GPO

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with the head of the Mossad, David Barnea

At the end of October 2020, in New York, it was difficult to talk about anything except Donald Trump. I was there for the digital edition of the Cybertech New York conference, and every person who spoke to me either loathed Trump or admired him. The majority loathed the president in his city. In any case, New York is Democratic.   

It was the week before the presidential elections and the atmosphere was poisoned. There was violence on the streets. A number of months have passed since then, and last week New York appeared to me to be completely different. Zero politics. A lot of optimism backed up by the millions of vaccinated people. There too, the days of post-COVID have almost arrived.    

Has the public atmosphere also changed completely in Israel following the swearing-in of the new government? Highly doubtful. But there is at least one national entity whose staff would be happy to be ignored by the media in the coming years: the Mossad. If possible, completely. This comes after the term of the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the interview that Cohen gave to journalist Ilana Dayan for the "Oovdah" TV program.    

It is an understatement to say that not everyone in the Mossad liked the interview. In fact, most people in the organization didn't like the broadcast. Especially when Cohen's appearance before the cameras followed the sensationalistic interview that the outgoing deputy head of the Mossad, identified only as "A", gave to journalist Nadav Eyal for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper after not being chosen to succeed Cohen. "A" gave bad marks to then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing his management of both COVID-19 and the nuclear issue as "not good". 

Violation of codes

To a great extent, the last show of the season for "Oovdah", which was dedicated to Yossi Cohen and the Mossad, upset veteran Mossad officers, both current and retired ones, because it was seen as violating one of the organization's most important codes for decades: Mossad officers do not give interviews about their years in the organization, especially not about heroic operations, with their faces shown.     

There were even those of the opinion that Cohen committed a serious violation of field security, no less. (Journalist Ben Caspit reported on Thursday in the Ma'ariv newspaper that veteran intelligence figure Yossi Langotzki intends to submit a complaint against Cohen with the police. Let's see if he does it).   

There have already been heads of the Mossad who wrote books years after they retired, like Shabtai Shavit and Zvi Zamir, but they deal mainly with perception and strategic analysis. A former Mossad officer, Mishka Ben-David, wrote books about imaginary operations, perhaps based on incidents that really happened or perhaps not. In the past, stories on Mossad operations were told mainly by journalists, often based on "foreign sources", and not exactly accurate, to say the least.   

However, the way in which Yossi Cohen described operations of the Mossad firsthand, and particularly the details of the operation for the stealing of the nuclear documents from Tehran in January 2018, was unprecedented. And if the head of the Mossad speaks about an operation deep inside Iran with such openness, as if it was an operation by IDF paratroopers in the casbah of Nablus, who can prevent much lower ranking officers from talking about the operations that they participated in (under the restrictions of the censor, as was done for Cohen's interview)?    

The code that Mossad officers do not publicly discuss operations is intended to serve the almost mythological glory of the Mossad. Almost every incident on the face of the earth is attributed to the long arm of the Mossad, in one way or another.  

The Mossad always avoids commenting on the reports, whether the incidents are connected to it or not. Beyond that, even if a report is heavily censored, the enemy can always learn something from the descriptions of an operation. The operation for the stealing of the documents will not happen again, but the Iranians, and not only the Iranians, can learn a lot from the way in which the Mossad prepares for its operations, what happens during the operations and after them.  

Description perceived as bragging

It is important to emphasize that the report of the transfer of the nuclear documents to Israel, by Netanyahu, was intended to achieve many legitimate goals, mainly to create public opinion that would make it difficult for Western governments, mainly the U.S., to sign with Iran agreements that Israel opposes.  

Besides the issue of revealing intelligence secrets, the description of the events by Yossi Cohen was perceived by many Mossad officers as bragging. Long before the interviews given by "A" and Cohen on the occasion of retirement, Cohen's term was characterized by unprecedented reports about the Mossad.    

Very frequently, news surfaced in major Western media organizations, based on "Western intelligence sources", about mysterious explosions at nuclear facilities in Iran, and other exploits attributed to the Mossad.   

Many in the Mossad were not surprised. Yossi Cohen's extroverted approach was known during his entire illustrious career during which he succeeded above all in handling agents. Even when he finished his term as head of the National Security Council, and was appointed by Netanyahu as head of the Mossad, in 2016, many expected that he would be a head of the Mossad with an unprecedentedly high profile in the media, and it indeed happened.   

But many in the Mossad were of the opinion that Cohen was driven by a desire to build a reputation as a brilliant and daring head of the Mossad ahead of a future bid for leadership of the Likud and the prime ministership, and not necessarily by the good of the organization. In terms of the intelligence world, those are "foreign considerations".   

By the way, contrary to what is commonly believed, Netanyahu did not necessarily encourage Cohen to stand out in the media during the years of his term. There were quite a few times that Netanyahu "let him have it" and "silenced" him, perhaps so Cohen would not overshadow him or establish himself too quickly as Netanyahu's future heir.   

One way or another, Cohen's interview to Ilana Dayan was especially long, and filmed over a number of months at different locations. He had already been interviewed by Dayan in the past, as if by chance, when the Mossad unveiled its COVID-19 war room located at Sheba Hospital. In the exact same way, he was interviewed by Channel 13 while on the way out of the war room.            

The next five years

In the meantime, the new head of the Mossad, David (Deddi) Barnea, had his first work meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett this week (which was longer than the meeting that Bennett had with Netanyahu). Netanyahu himself estimated in his first speech as head of the opposition at the Knesset that there will be far fewer "daring operations" on Iranian territory during Bennett's term. Is that correct? It's possible, but not necessarily because of the replacement of the prime minister.  

During the next five years, the Mossad will be in the headlines much less than it was during the term of Yossi Cohen, first and foremost because Mossad head Barnea is completely different than Cohen. He is a much greyer figure, not only in the color of his hair, but that does not necessarily mean that he is less daring than Cohen.       

Will Benjamin Netanyahu's prophecy that under Bennett, namely in the coming years, there will be far fewer "daring operations in Iran" than there were under Cohen and Netanyahu himself? It is very possible. But if it happens, it will not necessarily be because of the extent of Bennett's daringness.   

It is important to understand that according to the norms of intelligence services around the world, the preparation of an operation in enemy territory could take years, during which agents are planted and countless cover stories are built. The political echelon only decides the timing of the operation when the infrastructure already exists. In other words, the amount of operations depends on the amount of operations that are already underway, and on the existing infrastructures, and not on a decision by a prime minister and a head of the Mossad. In any case, time will tell whether Netanyahu was right.      

The next head of the ISA: "R" or "R"?

As Barnea takes his first steps as head of the Mossad and hopes for some quiet in the media, the battle for the position of head of the Israel Security Agency is in full swing.  Originally, the current head of the ISA, Nadav Argaman, was supposed to end his term in May. Netanyahu extended the term for several months because of the elections, and this week Bennett extended it for another month until October.    

If Netanyahu was still prime minister, the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, would have a very good chance of being the next head of the ISA. Ben-Shabbat held very high level positions in the organization in the past.   

Contrary to how he is often portrayed by the media, Ben-Shabbat was not a submissive servant or an appointee of Netanyahu lacking in skills. Ben-Shabbat, who comes from a family with 12 children in the city of Dimona, has absolutely no charisma and is not a poster boy from the working class, but he is a professional of the highest caliber that carried out far-reaching structural change in the National Security Council.     

During his term, the NSC made an enormous contribution to the strengthening of Israel's ties with Africa, mainly with Chad and Sudan, with which a peace agreement was signed. In recent years, the NSC functioned as a miniature version of the Foreign Ministry.  

Among other reasons, it happened because of the loathing that Netanyahu felt toward the Foreign Ministry, and because the ministry was intentionally weakened (By the way, the Foreign Ministry will be significantly strengthened under Israel's Bennett-Lapid government, and this is already being expressed by the abolition of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs under the Prime Minister's Office, and the transfer of what is left of it to the Foreign Ministry).   

Anyway, back to the race in the ISA. Ben-Shabbat has almost zero chance of succeeding Argaman following the changing of the government. The natural candidates for the post are currently the deputy head of the agency, "R", or the previous deputy head, whose name also begins with "R" (In fact, the real name of the former deputy head of the ISA begins with the letter "Y", but most people are only familiar with his nickname, and thus the struggle is between "R" and "R").   

The letter is the same, but the candidates are very different. The previous deputy head, whom I will call R-1, comes from the field of handling agents. He made headlines in 2014 when, as head of the ISA's operations in the southern region, in an interview he gave to Ilana Dayan, he claimed that before Operation "Protective Edge" the ISA provided the IDF with information on escalation that was about to happen (which sparked a furious response by the IDF against the ISA).    

In the years since that interview, R-1 has served as head of the ISA staff and, as mentioned, deputy head of the organization. Currently he is being lent to the Defense Ministry until it is decided whether he will be the next head of the ISA, or go into retirement.      

The other "R", whom I will call "R-2", is from the operations branch, having taken almost the same route as current ISA head Argaman. Actually, Argaman and R-2 have been alongside one another almost the entire way, with R-2 serving as Argaman's deputy in his various posts.  

However, the most senior deputy position in the Israel Security Agency, R-2's current position, has caused significant professional tension between the two good friends. Will Argaman throw his support behind R-2? It is not certain. In any case, the decision of who will be the next head of the ISA all depends on Naftali Bennett. There will be an answer soon. 

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