After a week that saw a series of unexplained blasts at Iranian nuclear facilities attributed by overseas analysts to the Israel’s clandestine services, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he would extend the term of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen until June 2021.
Cohen is considered a close adviser and confidant to Netanyahu, who pulled him from the Mossad’s ranks in 2013 to appoint him national security adviser. Cohen succeeded Tamir Pardo as head of the Mossad in January 2016.
Cohen’s term was slated to end in January 2021.
“Given the security challenges faced by the state of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Mossad head Yossi Cohen to extend his term by six more months,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “The head of the Mossad will be replaced in June 2021. The head of the Mossad agreed to the prime minister’s request, and in January will begin his sixth year in the post.”
Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu’s decision may have violated his coalition agreement with Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is supposed to have a veto over senior appointments.
Officials close to Netanyahu explained that the decision did not amount to an appointment, since it was only an extension of the Mossad chief’s term.
Cohen has also served as Netanyahu’s chief envoy for the government’s most sensitive diplomatic assignments, including throughout the Muslim world. Earlier this month, Cohen visited Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II amid a growing rift over Netanyahu’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Cohen has been identified as a prime contender to replace Netanyahu as head of Likud, where he is a popular figure, and some unconfirmed reports have suggested he is Netanyahu’s favorite to succeed him.
The spymaster is famed in the Mossad ranks as an operations man. Under his watch, the Mossad has reportedly grown in personnel and budgets and has focused on espionage operations targeting the Iranian nuclear program.
An Israeli TV report Friday night said that Israel was bracing for a possible Iranian retaliation as officials in Tehran suggested that a mystery fire and explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility the day before could have been caused by an Israeli cyberattack.
The explosion reportedly “destroyed” a laboratory where Iran was developing advanced centrifuges for faster uranium enrichment.
The blast was one of a series of strange explosions, fires and leaks to strike sensitive Iranian facilities, leading to speculation that at least some of them may have been caused by sabotage, with Israel as the chief suspect.
In 2018, Netanyahu disclosed that Israel had uncovered and stolen a vast nuclear archive in Iran, with reports crediting the Mossad for the operation.
Iran long has denied seeking nuclear weapons, though the IAEA previously said Iran had done work in “support of a possible military dimension to its nuclear program” that largely halted in late 2003.
Western concerns over the Iranian atomic program led to sanctions and eventually to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The US under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018, leading to a series of escalating attacks between Iran and the US, and to Tehran abandoning the deal’s production limits.