Foreign Ministry director general resigns, key intelligence official to step in

FM appoints Ronen Levy, the National Security Council’s former point man in Arab world and Africa, to senior post; some diplomats aren’t thrilled

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz (L) and his replacement, Ronen Levy. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90, and Rami Zarnegar)
Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz (L) and his replacement, Ronen Levy. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90, and Rami Zarnegar)

Alon Ushpiz, director general of the Foreign Ministry, announced on Sunday that he would be stepping down from his post.

“I will dedicate the coming weeks to a comprehensive and orderly handover, and to concluding a number of issues on the agenda,” Ushpiz wrote in a letter to Foreign Ministry staff.

Ushpiz will be handing his duties over to Ronen Levy, a veteran of the Shin Bet security service and the National Security Council, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced.

Levy, 48, who spend two decades in the Shin Bet dealing with the Gaza Strip, had his name and photograph released officially for the first time in Sunday’s announcement from Cohen’s office.

Levy rose through the ranks of the Shin Bet, working his way up from a field operative to head of the Gaza Strip area, before being taken into the National Security Council by his boss Meir Ben-Shabbat, a senior Shin Bet official in southern Israel who became Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser in 2017.

Under Ben-Shabbat, Levy headed the NSC Special Relations office, dealing with countries with which Israel does not have formal relations in the Middle East and Africa. Known by his codename “Maoz” — or stronghold — Levy worked behind the scenes laying the groundwork for the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (L) and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (2nd-L) meet with Moroccan King Mohammed VI (R) at the royal palace in Rabat, Morocco, December 22, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The fluent Arabic speaker was also a key player in the security relationship with Egypt and establishing personal ties with senior Moroccan officials. He also developed close ties with officials in Sudan and Chad.

In a statement, Cohen called Levy “one of the most experienced and creative individuals in connecting and strengthening international ties for Israel.”

“He proved himself in countless achievements, not all of which can be publicized,” Cohen said.

Levy’s appointment is sure to stir up opposition within the Foreign Ministry and other government agencies. In the leadup to the Abraham Accords, anonymous senior officials in the Mossad told Channel 13 that they were fed up with the NSC’s independent initiatives in the Arab world.

“The Mossad doesn’t like Meir Ben-Shabbat and Maoz’s efforts to maintain ties with countries in the region while bypassing the Mossad,” one official said in 2019.

Then-US chief of protocol Cam Henderson assists then-US president Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan with the documents during the signing of the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo Andrea Hanks, via Wikimedia Commons)

In retaliation for Levy’s efforts, Mossad officials stayed away from NSC meetings headed by Ben-Shabbat for almost a year.

Multiple outlets wrote about the tensions that Ben-Shabbat and Levy had with then-Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Some anonymous Foreign Ministry officials had a similarly dismal view of Levy after his appointment was announced. “He was stuck up and didn’t take the ministry into account,” an official told the Ynet news site. Others blasted his interpersonal skills.

At the same time, some diplomats were more optimistic about the development. They saw Levy’s appointment as a sign that Cohen intends to have the Foreign Ministry — and not the Prime Minister’s Office or intelligence agencies — lead efforts to expand the Abraham Accords.

Ushpiz, who had served as Israel’s envoy to India, was appointed director-general by former foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi in June 2020.

Since Cohen took office earlier this month, there were signs that Ushpiz would not stick around. During Cohen’s inaugural meeting with Foreign Ministry staff on January 2, Ushpiz gave a terse speech, and sat with a markedly sour expression while Cohen delivered his remarks.

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