Netanyahu said set to tap Yossi Cohen as next Mossad chief

PM expected to name his preferred candidate in Monday evening prime-time address

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu is set to name his national security adviser Yossi Cohen as his pick to lead the Mossad, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly said Monday. The new appointee will replace Tamir Pardo, who steps down in January.

Netanyahu will deliver a previously unscheduled statement at 8.15 p.m, during Israel’s prime-time evening news programs. The announcement sparked broad speculation he is to name the new head of the Mossad spy agency.

Unlike most security appointments, this decision is that of Netanyahu alone, as the Mossad operates under the direct authority of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Serving as current national security adviser and having previously held the role of deputy head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen has been one of three rumored candidates to head the agency.

Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset September 2, 2014. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ FLASH90)
Yossi Cohen, national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset on September 2, 2014 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Cohen was born in Jerusalem, to a modern Orthodox family. They lived in Katamon, near the Netanyahus; his father, a seventh-generation Israeli, was a veteran of the pre-state Irgun paramilitary.

A father of four, Cohen graduated from the Or Etzion Yeshiva high school run by Rabbi Haim Druckman. In the Mossad, he was the only religious candidate in the organization’s case-officer course. As a Mossad case officer, he was charged with recruiting and handling spies — the very heart of the clandestine organization.

Cohen, who no longer wears a skullcap, rose up through the ranks, commanding the Tzomet department, in charge of all case officers, and serving as the deputy head of the Mossad from 2011-2013, when he was appointed head of the National Security Council. Since then, he has shown himself to be active on the diplomacy front, even at the expense of stepping on others’ toes.

Cohen’s primary challenger from within the Mossad was Ram Ben-Barak. A native of Nahalal — Israel’s first moshav — Ben-Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad prior to Cohen, is currently the director general of the Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Ministry.

Rami Ben-Barak (screen capture: Channel 2)
Rami Ben-Barak (screen capture: Channel 2)

Ben-Barak served in the army’s top commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, before joining the Mossad and rising through the ranks in the technology branches of the agency’s operational units. The Yedioth Ahronoth daily revealed last year that he was one of the combatants arrested in a foreign country in the 1990s.

Ben-Barak later was given command of Caesarea, a unit that reportedly operates in target, or enemy, countries — trailing suspects; eliminating enemies; and occasionally maintaining contact with Mossad combatants living under cover.

The final candidate, known only as “N.” due to security considerations, is the current deputy head of the organization, having served under Pardo since 2011. Before being appointed deputy head of the agency, he served for many years as head of the Mossad’s technology unit, and was considered one of Israel’s experts in the use of modern technology in espionage.

The Prime Minister’s Office in November denied reports that Netanyahu was considering former Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Ido Nehushtan for the role, after sources involved in the process told the Ynet news site he had “a very serious chance.”

Top brass in the espionage service criticized the possibility the prime minister may pick an outsider rather than a candidate with insider experience of the agency.

The Mossad has had 11 chiefs since its founding — six career officers in the clandestine service; and five former army generals.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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