Our new spymaster and the demise of Israeli politics
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AnalysisYossi Cohen is now effectively Israel's top diplomat

Our new spymaster and the demise of Israeli politics

There is an irony at the heart of the Netanyahu premiership -- a dramatic consolidation of political power driven by a collapse in Israelis' faith in such power

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen look over documents in a photo posted on social media by Netanyahu on December 7, 2015, shortly after he named Cohen as the new Mossad chief. (PMO/Facebook)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen look over documents in a photo posted on social media by Netanyahu on December 7, 2015, shortly after he named Cohen as the new Mossad chief. (PMO/Facebook)

On December 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an unprecedented and slightly embarrassing press conference to announce that National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen would be appointed the next chief of Israel’s famed Mossad espionage agency.

Netanyahu’s office sought to turn the announcement into a dramatic media event, attempting with all the gravitas that congenitally cynical Israeli spokespeople can muster to tell journalists that the prime minister would be making a live public statement at 8 p.m., just in time for the top of the primetime news broadcasts.

As one might expect from an Israeli politician’s attempt at ceremony, what followed was a jumbled mess.

For one thing, Netanyahu stepped out in front of the cameras over an hour late — an hour in which he kept waiting not only the half-dozen journalists who bothered to show up to his Jerusalem office, but with them the entire Israeli primetime audience, who were told repeatedly by news anchors that the address would begin imminently, then repeatedly were informed it had been delayed. Finally, at around 9:10 p.m., to the eye-rolling of many, Netanyahu stepped out in front of the cameras.

The awkwardness didn’t end there. Netanyahu spoke for six minutes about a topic that had never before been the subject of such a public pronouncement, then abruptly left the podium.

As he walked off, one exasperated reporter shouted out what so many were thinking, the question that by now had overshadowed the announcement itself and which was carried live to the viewing public: “Why did this require a prime-time news conference?”

Netanyahu paused, turned back to the reporters, said “Thank you” into the microphone and left the room.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the new head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 7, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the new head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 7, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu rarely steps out in front of the cameras on live television, especially when there is no clear political benefit. Why did the prime minister go to such trouble to publicly showcase a decision that until recently would have been considered a national secret?

The answer reveals a great deal about the changing nature of the Netanyahu premiership, which is fast becoming the most centralized and powerful Israeli administration in generations, possibly since the indispensable “Old Man,” Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion. It speaks, too, about the way Netanyahu himself has been shaped by the political moment in which he lives.

A second foreign service

The Mossad has long served as a kind of subterranean foreign service, taking on diplomatic work too sensitive to risk handing to the official (and by reputation, leaky) diplomatic corps. It’s a well-known secret — already published, to be sure — that the Mossad mission to Egypt eclipses the official Israeli embassy in Cairo in both scale and influence. With many of Israel’s diplomatic relationships heavily focused on national security concerns, the Mossad’s channels to foreign governments and espionage services often carry the lion’s share of the most important, urgent and sensitive communications produced by the highest echelons of government.

Under Netanyahu, this role is growing. The Mossad is effectively replacing the Foreign Ministry as a policy planning and diplomatic agency — at least for those relationships or issues that matter most: the Iranian nuclear portfolio, the relationship with the highest echelons in Washington and major European capitals, and coordination with Arab governments.

The reason goes beyond the simple fact that the Mossad is one of the few agencies of government that — again, at least by reputation — can keep a secret. The Mossad’s larger advantage for Netanyahu is that it lies deep within the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, and operates under the PM’s authority alone.

In Israel’s party-list coalition system, where the foreign minister is almost necessarily a direct political competitor to the prime minister either from within the ruling party or as head of a coalition partner, and thus has a fundamental political interest in clashing with the prime minister, the Mossad constitutes a tantalizing second option: a direct, quiet means for conducting foreign policy without the chaos and gamesmanship introduced by coalition politics.

The spymaster-diplomat

Cohen’s appointment (which took effect January 7), then, represents something more than ordinary turnover in the spy agency.

In his December 7 address, Netanyahu explained his vision of the agency’s mission under Cohen as three-fold.

“The Mossad is an operational body,” he said. “It is also an intelligence agency. And it is also a body that at times paves the way to diplomatic relations, especially with states with whom we do not have formal ties.”

He dwelled for some time on the third role, and on his own part in it.

“The Mossad will continue to help me, as prime minister, to develop diplomatic ties around the world, including with Arab and Muslim states. These ties found expression last week [at the UN climate conference] in Paris, where I met with many leaders. They have a deep appreciation for the state of Israel as a country that stands firm in the face of radical Islamic forces and conducts a determined fight against terror.”

As if on cue, in mid-December, it was Cohen, still the national security adviser but bolstered by his new status as Israel’s spymaster-elect, who led talks with Turkish officials in Zurich to rekindle the broken ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman meets with Israel's National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen at the US Department of State in Washington, DC on February 18, 2015. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman meets with Israel’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen at the US Department of State in Washington, DC on February 18, 2015. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

For Cohen is no mere spymaster, his boss told the nation in that awkward December broadcast. He is now effectively Israel’s top diplomat, and it is now the Mossad, explicitly and publicly, that is tasked with the most strategically critical aspects of Israel’s foreign policy — carrying out this task at the prime minister’s side and at his discretion.

Yossi Cohen may have been the explicit subject of that broadcast, but Benjamin Netanyahu was the implicit one. In talking about Cohen’s new appointment, Netanyahu was talking about his own power.

The polyministerial policymaker

And this is a powerful prime minister indeed, if only because Netanyahu is so much more than just a prime minister. He currently holds the posts of foreign minister, economy minister, communications minister and minister for regional cooperation.

Pundits have tended to minimize the significance of Netanyahu’s refusal to hand these cabinet seats to coalition partners. Some argue he’s holding on to them to entice additional parties to join his narrow 61-seat coalition. Others suggest he simply fears adding new ministers to the cabinet table, a move that could upset the cabinet-seat balance set down in the coalition agreements.

Netanyahu’s growing influence reflects the very opposite of power. It is rooted in the shrunken horizons of Israeli politics

Yet Netanyahu’s own behavior suggests he clings to these posts for deeper reasons. For one thing, he has worked hard to keep control of them, even when doing so carried a political cost. For another, each ministry he has kept for himself gives him a real advantage in advancing the policies he most cares about.

Control of the Communications Ministry gives him a hand in the partisan wars that have long characterized Israel’s media landscape. The most recent skirmishes in these wars included a legislative attempt to outlaw freebie newspapers such as the Sheldon Adelson-funded pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom.

Likud MK Ofir Akunis seen at a press conference of the Likud party in Tel Aviv on February 01, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Likud MK Ofir Akunis seen at a press conference of the Likud party in Tel Aviv on February 01, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu has thus gone to absurd lengths to keep the ministry for his own. When he appointed Likud MK Ofir Akunis, his long-time ally and former aid, to the Communications Ministry, he forced Akunis to swallow the embarrassing pill of having his official title be the “minister within the Communications Ministry,” and not the “communications minister.” There is only one difference between the two titles: the former allows Akunis to be a full minister without actually being the official head of his ministry, enabling Netanyahu to keep the regulatory powers of the communications minister for himself.

In the Economy Ministry, too, Netanyahu did not take the reins by accident. Shas party leader Aryeh Deri fled the post in November in order to avoid using his office’s powers to help pass the controversial natural gas framework Netanyahu has advocated. Deri gladly traded the political albatross of the gas deal for the less controversial Ministry for Negev, Galilee and the Periphery – essentially a government slush fund that allows him to spend his days handing out grants from the public coffers to poorer periphery communities where his party hopes to shore up its dwindling support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) seen with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) seen with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And in the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu appointed longtime loyalist and former UN ambassador Dore Gold as the ministry’s director general, a move that ensures his own control over the ministry despite the best efforts of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely; a move, in fact, that keeps the ministry’s professional diplomatic corps under his thumb and out of his (and Yossi Cohen’s) way.

Which brings us back to Yossi Cohen, who grasps better than most the new shape of Israeli governance. In 2013, when he left the post of deputy head of the Mossad to serve as Netanyahu’s national security adviser, he made no secret of his reason: he hoped to grow close to the prime minister and eventually become his favored candidate for Mossad chief.

Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold in Jerusalem, June 1, 2015. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold in Jerusalem, June 1, 2015. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

As the national security adviser, the grizzled ex-operations man found himself in unfamiliar territory as the premier’s go-between with Arab, European and even American leaders. He already spoke English, French and Arabic, but was inexperienced in the actual practice of diplomacy. He learned that role on the job — and it was this experience that landed him the top job in Netanyahu’s Mossad.

What is significant here is that it is the new Mossad chief himself, and not just the pundits watching from the sidelines, who now believes that closeness to the prime minister is a precondition to meaningful policy influence in today’s Israel.

An ‘American’ prime minister

None of this has escaped the attention of Netanyahu’s critics, who understood the step Cohen’s appointment signifies toward further consolidation of the prime minister’s position.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, formerly an experienced journalist covering the Israeli security establishment, railed against “the way [Cohen’s appointment] was done” in the days after Netanyahu’s announcement.

“Mainly, I’m worried not about the position Cohen is entering, but about the one he leaves behind,” he said in a statement.

“The head of the NSC is the defense staffer closest to the prime minister. He sits by his ear more than any other official, even more than the heads of the security services themselves. This person’s independence, in thought and speech, is critical.”

That independence is marred, he argued, when closeness to the PM becomes a factor in one’s future job prospects.

MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid. (Flash90)
MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid. (Flash90)

“It would be appropriate for this position to only be given to someone who is not a candidate for any future post. Otherwise, there is the fear…that the [adviser] will tell the prime minister only things that the prime minister wants to hear, and not challenge his views. Cohen’s successor must be an experienced defense official who has no ambition for a future post and will declare ahead of time that he won’t accept such a post.”

How strange these criticisms must sound in Washington or Paris. It is hard to imagine an American or French observer complaining at the fact that presidents Obama or Hollande are permitted to choose their own national security advisers, or lamenting that these advisers are allowed to vie for future government posts.

Yet for Shelah, this comparison is precisely the problem. Netanyahu’s management of Israel’s security and foreign policy apparatuses is tilting distressingly, he believes, toward the American or French models. The National Security Council was once an empty shell until Netanyahu found in it an answer to his reliance on competing ministers’ policy staffs. The national security adviser, once a sidelined post that served as an unexciting retirement for ex-defense chiefs, is now important enough to make the adviser’s appointment process a real concern for Netanyahu’s opponents.

Powerless power

In terms of his straightforward control over the mechanisms of policymaking, Netanyahu has become an incredibly powerful prime minister. Yet in another, perhaps more important sense, Netanyahu’s growing influence reflects the very opposite of power. It is rooted in the shrunken horizons of Israeli politics, in the fact that political parties have lost the capacity to articulate and implement solutions to the nation’s most vexing problems. Netanyahu’s power is growing amid and because of the growing irrelevance of political power in the Israeli political imagination.

For most Israelis, the last 25 years of national politics have been a period of wild political experimentation on the issue that has defined the left-right divide: the Palestinians. From Yitzhak Shamir’s grudging acquiescence to American-led multilateral peace talks in Madrid to Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to retake the initiative, surprising the Americans with the Oslo process in 1992; from Netanyahu’s signing of the Wye agreement – the last agreement actually signed between an Israeli and Palestinian leader – to Ehud Barak’s lunge for a deal with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000; and on to Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Ehud Olmert’s 2006 campaign promise of a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, Israelis once elected such leaders in order to carry out these grand peacemaking experiments.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995. (GPO)
Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995. (GPO)

In 1992, 1999 and 2006, the explicit promise to separate Israel from the Palestinians won elections. Yet after the Second Intifada in 2000 and the Second Lebanon War in 2006, that was no longer true. Israelis lost faith not only in the Palestinian ability to reciprocate Israeli withdrawal with peace, but in the very leaders who urged them to make such gambles in the first place.

This is not an argument that Israelis’ skepticism is right, but only that for most Israelis, the experience of the failures of these promises, each time accompanied by waves of bloodshed, has come to define their political expectations. Israelis no longer believe there is a discernible way out of the current conflict, and are unwilling to elect anyone who doesn’t share their hard-earned distrust.

Israeli security forces at the site of a terror attack near the Etzion Junction in the West Bank on October 20, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli security forces at the site of a terror attack near the Etzion Junction in the West Bank on October 20, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As they have shown for the last decade, polls this month revealed yet again this underlying Israeli ambiguity, with most Israelis favoring separation from the Palestinians, but saying they are convinced it cannot be implemented.

“There is broad agreement in the Jewish public (71%) that even the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would not bring an end to Palestinian terror against Jews,” explains a report by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University summarizing the findings of December’s “peace index” poll.

The extent of this view is made clear by the finding that “The only party for which a majority of the voters think a peace agreement would bring an end to the terror is Meretz (81%).” Not coincidentally, Meretz is also the only Jewish-majority party in the Knesset that still openly advocates a near-term Israeli withdrawal.

Sound and fury

This reality underlies the curious state of Israel’s present-day political debates, where questions of “incitement” — who is inciting against whom, and which incitement is worse than the others — have almost completely replaced debates on substance.

Thus it was in mid-December that a dramatic Knesset showdown set lawmakers shouting, clapping and pounding their desks so loudly in the plenum that Speaker Yuli Edelstein had to call a recess and even turn off the podium microphone while opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog was speaking.

The debaters were none other than Herzog and Netanyahu, the nation’s top political leader and his chief political rival. The issue that set these titans of Israeli politics at each others’ rhetorical throats, however, was not a disagreement on policy, but a question of rhetoric: which one would condemn which incident of purported incitement against the other.

Zionist Union party leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union party leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“You say that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t condemn incitement, but you don’t condemn the terrible and awful incitement against the president of the State of Israel,” Herzog charged from the podium to the prime minister sitting in the front row.

Netanyahu is the chief political beneficiary of a broad and deep skepticism among most Israelis — but he is not actually the instigator of it

“From personal experience, leaders are criticized,” Netanyahu replied when he stepped up to the podium after Herzog. “I oppose all incitement and all violent discourse against the president or any other public official. At the same time, I will continue to fight for the right of everyone to express their opinion.”

Turning to Herzog, Netanyahu demanded “he get up and emphatically condemn the Breaking the Silence organization.”

Herzog replied: “In certain cases, Breaking the Silence crossed the line, but you must let people who fought on the front lines express themselves, in the right places.

“I am disgusted by these opinions, but I will fight to allow people to say them,” Herzog added for good measure.

Amid the jeering and shouting that ensued, it was hard to miss the fact that the prime minister and opposition leader were engaged in little more than rhetorical feints — accusing the other side of failing to condemn “incitement” while noting they would not themselves engage in curtailing free speech.

This was not a substantive debate on the limits of free speech or the nature of incitement. It was short, loud and shallow — and in that, it represented perfectly the current state of Israeli political discourse. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Knesset debate between the two leaders that actually involved substantive policy disagreements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by Knesset members after a vote on the 2015-2016 state budget, November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by Knesset members after a vote on the 2015-2016 state budget, November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last week, Herzog gave voice to this lack of meaningful debate when he was asked in an interview for the left-leaning Yedioth Ahronoth daily about — what else? — incitement.

Was “your side” equally responsible for incitement, the interviewer asked.

Herzog’s response was telling. He began by denying that he had a side.

“We each need to pick and choose our words,” he affirmed, then wondered: “What is my side? The left? I’m not a left-wing man, I’m a man of the center.”

When the head of the Labor party denies he is a man of the left, when the primary subject of political debate between the leader of the government and the leader of the opposition is the relative unpleasantness of the other’s rhetoric, it is fair to ask what it actually means to stand at the forefront of such shrunken politics.

Here, too, the circumstances of Cohen’s appointment hint at this larger reality. According to a PMO source, Netanyahu consulted with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan about the appointment. Dagan has been one of the prime minister’s most prominent critics on Iran, just as former Shin Bet chiefs Yuval Diskin and Yaakov Peri have been among his most influential and substantive critics on the Palestinian stalemate.

With public opinion essentially unified in its frustration and distrust, politicians no longer believe they can afford to criticize Netanyahu’s carefully constructed “wait-for-them-to-change” policy toward the Palestinians. His most effective opponents, then, are not the heads of opposition parties, but the former heads of security agencies, who find themselves criticizing him publicly and stridently even as he continues to consult with them.

‘Responsible’ leadership

Netanyahu’s electoral victories are not as mysterious as they are portrayed by some of his opponents or overseas observers. As best as can be discerned from polling data, he wins elections not because he is personally loved by most Israelis. Rather, he is trusted on the issue Israelis most want to go away: the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For the past seven years, Netanyahu’s political campaigns have usually (with a few notable exceptions) shied away from explicitly right-wing rhetoric on issues such as settlements or judicial reform, focusing instead on a single recurring theme: his promise to be “responsible,” by which he means, immune to the cajoling and pressure from abroad that urge him to attempt new diplomatic experiments with the Palestinians.

In this, Netanyahu plays consciously on the simple fact, demonstrated consistently in polling, that Israelis no longer trust the judgment of their leaders. It was Israel’s most celebrated military chiefs, after all, from Rabin to Barak to Sharon, who led the country into the peace processes and subsequent bloody terror waves of recent years.

Netanyahu is no general, and in his campaign messaging, at least, neither an ideologue nor a bearer of promises. He is, rather, a skeptic. Let the Palestinians change, he argues; let them stop seeking Israel’s destruction, and it won’t matter if the prime minister is Netanyahu or Herzog. Peace will come. Until then, he vows, he won’t gamble as his predecessors did.

It is this message, not Netanyahu’s persona or the posturing populism of some of his more strident Likud backbenchers, that has carried elections so consistently in recent years. And it is that consistent success at the ballot box that allows Netanyahu to grow his control over the agencies of government.

And so Netanyahu is not lying, as so many believe, when he promises support for Palestinian statehood in English while vowing in Hebrew that it won’t happen “on my watch,” if ever. The two statements, taken together, reflect precisely the views and expectations of his voters, their yearning for separation alongside their conviction that withdrawal can only worsen the bloodshed. They reflect, too, the deepest wellspring of his political support: his sidestepping of ideology in favor of an implicit promise to Israelis that he will never ask them to trust once more in Arab intentions.

Powerful, irrelevant

This duality of Netanyahu’s consolidation of power amid the hollowing out of the Israeli political discourse has profound implications for policy.

“[Barack] Obama has long understood Netanyahu to be the indispensable man of Middle East peacemaking,” writes journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of his interviews with the American president. “Obama believes that, alone among Israeli leaders, Netanyahu possesses the credibility to deliver as much as 70 percent of the Israeli public to a difficult compromise with the Palestinians.”

As Obama himself said in a March 2014 interview with Goldberg: “For Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis.”

This theme, that Netanyahu is failing to deliver peace, assumes that Netanyahu can deliver peace, an assumption that may be a fundamental misreading of the roots of his power. (It is also, of course, based on assumptions about the Palestinian side’s capabilities, but these are not our subject here.)

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As countless polls and Netanyahu’s own campaign rhetoric suggest, he does not, in fact, have much room to maneuver on negotiations or territorial withdrawal. Netanyahu is the chief political beneficiary of a broad and deep skepticism among most Israelis — but he is not actually the instigator of it.

If Netanyahu were to announce his acceptance of a West Bank withdrawal tomorrow, it is entirely possible — polls imply it may be all but certain — that his coalition would unravel and the Knesset collapse into new elections. Israelis might then be expected to put in office the next-most convincingly “responsible” candidate who rejects the formula of “risks” for peace in the face of what so many Israelis continue to view as an irreparably dysfunctional and violent Palestinian politics.

For many who wish to influence Israeli policy, the towering figure of Netanyahu serves as a distraction from these deeper political realities. It is a majority of Israelis, not Netanyahu, who must be convinced that a safe withdrawal is possible. It is Israelis, not Netanyahu, who elect Netanyahu to hold the line against any further diplomatic experiments.

And therein lies the paradox of the Netanyahu era: a period of American-style executive consolidation taking place even as — indeed, because — the Israeli political system no longer believes it is adequate to the most significant challenges that face the nation, and can no longer really imagine solutions to the defining questions of Israeli public life.

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