Netanyahu said to consider Mossad chief to head up national virus response
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Netanyahu said to consider Mossad chief to head up national virus response

Yossi Cohen, a confidant of the premier, reportedly mooted after no agreement reached on string of other officials, some of whom refused

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly considering offering Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen the job of leading the national response to the coronavirus pandemic — the latest of several officials said to be considered.

Cohen’s name has been floated in recent days by Netanyahu’s associates, Channel 12 reported Monday, amid reported disagreements about some candidates and after others turned down offers.

Cohen, 58, was involved in the early stages of the country’s pandemic response, with his spy agency responsible for bringing many ventilators and other medical equipment to Israel.

However, the report said that no formal offer has yet been made to Cohen.

Netanyahu announced earlier this month that he would extend Cohen’s term as Mossad chief until June 2021. His term had been slated to end in January 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 has also served as Netanyahu’s chief envoy for the government’s most sensitive diplomatic assignments, including throughout the Muslim world. Last 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 the Likud party, where he is a popular figure, and some unconfirmed reports have suggested he is Netanyahu’s favorite to succeed him.

Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen speaks at a cyber conference at the Tel Aviv University, on June 24, 2019. (Flash90)

There is no single figure managing the ongoing campaign, which is being led by the National Security Council and overseen by the government and a special so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers, as well as the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Since Israel lifted a lockdown that had brought daily detected infections down to low double digits, the country has been struggling to contain a second wave of the virus that has driven that figure to nearly 2,000. There has been increasing public criticism and anger over the government’s response to the crisis, with cabinet ministers divided over how to handle the outbreak and what restrictions to impose on the public in an effort to curb the spread.

The spy chief is far from the first official reportedly being considered for the job.

Prof. Gabi Barbash. (Weizmann Institute, screenshot)

On Sunday, the Health Ministry denied a report that Gabi Barbash, a former senior health official who has become a household name with his commentary on the coronavirus and the efforts to contain it, will be appointed to lead the national campaign.

The ministry said a report to that effect by the Kan public broadcaster was no more than “gossip.” It said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was still vetting candidates for the job of coronavirus czar.

However, Barbash hinted Monday that there were talks, telling the Ynet news site in an interview that he “won’t comment until this matter is decided.”

Barbash is a former CEO of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and a former director-general of the Health Ministry. He has publicly criticized the government for failing to contain a resurgence of the virus, saying actions could have been taken to prevent the current situation, in which more than 28,000 people are currently infected.

Over the past few months, he has become a familiar public figure as a commentator on the coronavirus on Channel 12 news’s main evening broadcast.

Another name that has come up is former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that he was willing to take on the job.

Then IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the IDF, in Latrun, on May 7, 2018. (Flash90)

Eisenkot’s name had reportedly been floated to government decision makers earlier this year by a group of former senior military officials, scientists and high-tech people led by Tal Russo, himself a former general, the report said. Eisenkot said that although the group had asked if he was interested and he had responded that he was, no government officials ever got back to him.

Last week Ynet reported that political sources have assessed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hesitant to appoint Eisenkot, who ended his term as IDF chief in 2019, due to the possibility of him becoming a future political threat.

Roni Numa, the former head of the IDF’s Central Command, who was initially considered a front-runner to take on the anti-virus campaign project, eventually told Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy that he was not interested in the position.

Levy’s immediate predecessor at the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, also reportedly turned down the role after a meeting with Netanyahu.

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