The former head of the Shin Bet security service released a rare and curiously worded official statement on Friday denying allegations made in a TV news program that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked him to tap the phones of the heads of the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces in 2011.
“I usually don’t address in the media the professional discourse that takes place between the prime minister and the head of the Shin Bet,” Yoram Cohen said in a statement.
“However, the reports in the media about instructions the prime minister supposedly gave to me when I was serving as Shin Bet head — to specifically listen to the phones of Chief of Staff [Benny] Gantz and Mossad head [Tamir] Pardo — are not correct,” he said.
Earlier, a Channel 10 news report quoted Cohen as telling confidants that he was “surprised” by the report and called it “nonsense.”
On Thursday night, the “Uvda” — or “Fact” — investigative television program ran a bombshell interview with Pardo focusing on his work as the head of the Mossad beginning in 2011 when Israel was seriously considering carrying out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
During the interview, Uvda host Ilana Dayan, citing sources familiar with the affair, alleged that Netanyahu had asked Cohen to tap the phones of Gantz and Pardo as a “preventive measure” out of unsubstantiated concerns that they might be leaking state secrets.
On Friday, Netanyahu flatly denied the report.
In an early morning tweet, Netanyahu wrote: “I never asked to listen to the chief of staff and the head of the Mossad. This is a total lie. There is no limit to the lies!”
Netanyahu said later that what he “really” listens to is Israeli music by the “The High Windows, The Yarkon Bridge Trio, Arik Einstein,” as well as “The Beatles — the first albums — Abba and also people from today.”
The report claimed Netanyahu asked Cohen to use his security service’s “special capabilities” to monitor the communications of a number of senior defense officials, including Gantz and Pardo.
According to the Uvda report, Cohen refused the prime minister’s request that he listen in on his colleagues’ phone calls, purportedly telling Netanyahu that “the Shin Bet is not supposed to use such drastic measures against the people leading the military and the Mossad.”
The report sent shock waves throughout Israel, with members of the opposition calling for a Knesset hearing on the issue.
“Information like this ought to have been presented in real time [in 2011] to the Intelligence Subcommittee” of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Labor MK Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition, told the Walla news site.
In the interview, Pardo said he did not know about the alleged request but was shocked by the allegation.
“I don’t want to believe that in the State of Israel, which is a democratic country, the prime minister would ask the head of the Shin Bet to listen in on the chief of staff or myself. If [Netanyahu] didn’t believe in us, he could have ended our tenures within 10 minutes,” Pardo said.
The former spymaster said Netanyahu’s purported request showed a “lack of faith.”
Pardo added that, had he known the prime minister had made the request at the time, “I would have had to stand up, walk out, and say, ‘This isn’t how I play.'”
The former Mossad chief said if he were head of the Shin Bet and had received such a request, he would have told the prime minister to “Go to hell,” which he said he believes “is what [Cohen] did.”
The report included a statement by Netanyahu’s office saying the allegation was “totally unfounded,” but the statement also appeared to acknowledge that at least some aspects of it were true.
“The claim that the prime minister asked the head of the Shin Bet to listen in on the chief of staff and head of the Mossad is totally unfounded. It is a total distortion of the system-wide efforts that are occasionally undertaken in order to protect sensitive information of the utmost importance to the security of Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
“The decision about which measures to use — and against which individuals — is left up to the authorized officials,” Netanyahu’s office said.
Pardo’s term as chief of the Mossad ended in 2016, and Gantz’s tenure as IDF chief of staff ended in early 2015. He was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.