Loose lips? Mossad denies its chief gave interview on Iran, killings, ambitions

But spy agency doesn’t dispute Yossi Cohen met with ultra-Orthodox magazine, just says quotes presented ‘out of context’; editor now claims statements were made in ‘closed talks’

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen attends US Independence Day celebrations at the residence of US ambassador David Friedman in Herzliya, July 3, 2017. (Heidi Levine, Pool via AP/File)
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen attends US Independence Day celebrations at the residence of US ambassador David Friedman in Herzliya, July 3, 2017. (Heidi Levine, Pool via AP/File)

Mossad officials on Sunday denied that the director of the nation’s intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, had given an interview to an ultra-Orthodox magazine, days after Cohen was quoted by the publication supposedly threatening a top Iranian general, discussing assassinations of Hamas officials, and talking about his aspiration to be a future political leader of Israel.

The ostensible interview to Mishpacha, published Thursday, prompted intense criticism of Cohen for allegedly playing politics and engaging in bluster while serving in a position regarded in Israel as highly sensitive, even hallowed.

But senior Mossad officials told Hebrew media on Sunday that he “never discussed political plans with reporters and did not give an interview” and “never expressed intentions to enter politics.” They added that he “did not detail Israeli assassination policies that may or may not exist.”

They also said “Mishpacha wanted to do a story about him but he did not wish it or create it.”

Notably, however, they did not deny that Cohen had ever met with the reporters and also described the quotes attributed to him as “wildly out of context,” rather than entirely false, raising further questions about the affair.

Meanwhile, Mishpacha editor Yossi Elitov, who co-wrote the original piece, raised more eyebrows when he appeared to himself deny that Cohen had given the paper an interview, despite the fact that the quotes attributed to Cohen were presented in the article as being part of an interview and were widely understood as such across Hebrew media (although some of Cohen’s quotes were also characterized as having been said in “closed conversations”).

“Mossad chief Yossi Cohen does not give interviews to journalists,” Elitov tweeted. “But certainly in the story there are monologues and closed conversations between the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies that shed a light on Israel’s challenges in all the tempestuous arenas.”

The discrepancies between Thursday’s reporting and Sunday’s denials — as well as the seemingly carefully worded statements issued by both sides in the affair — were hard to reconcile.

Among the quotes attributed to Cohen in the Thursday article was a claim that a potential Israeli assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was “not impossible.”

Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, attends an annual rally commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“He hasn’t necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets,” Cohen allegedly said of Soleimani.

Mishpacha further quoted Cohen as saying that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “knows we have the option of eliminating him.”

The paper also claimed Cohen commented on the killings of Hamas officials around the world in recent years in hits ascribed to Israel, quoting the Mossad chief as saying, “There are more than a few assassinations… but the enemy has changed tactics. It is not quick to attribute assassination to us, for its own reasons.”

Another purported Cohen quote said, “If there is one target that we eliminate without hesitation, it is Hamas officials abroad. From local agents to those who manage acquisitions of weapons pointed toward Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish New Year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

There have been reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views Cohen as a potential political successor. In that light, the paper claimed Cohen, who ends his term in 2020, stated that he had not yet decided whether to enter politics but said that “I definitely see myself in the leadership of Israel in the future.”

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