Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday evening named Yossi Cohen, his national security adviser, as the new head of the Mossad intelligence service. Netanyahu said Cohen, 54, has the “wealth of experience and achievements” necessary for the job.
Considered close to Netanyahu, Cohen had served as the deputy head of the Mossad from 2011-2013, when he was appointed head of the National Security Council. He will succeed current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who steps down in January.
Netanyahu announced the appointment in a televised appearance at the Prime Minister’s Office after weeks of speculation and rumors over possible candidates to head the famed spy agency.
Cohen was considered the front-runner of three former and current deputy heads competing for the job. Ram Ben-Barak, director general of the Intelligence Ministry, and the serving Mossad deputy head — identified only as “N.” — were the other two challengers.
Speaking Monday, Netanyahu said the Mossad needs to excel in three fields — operational ability, intelligence and diplomacy — and that he took all three imperatives into account when deciding on the new chief. Expertise in the last of these three fields, diplomacy, was particularly important when it came to fostering ties with countries that do not have formal relations with Israel, said the prime minister, apparently referring to Arab states.
Citing the French terror attacks and other threats, he said the new Mossad head needs to be wise and professional.
“Yossi Cohen has a vast wealth of experience and achievements and has proven his ability in various fields within the organization. He has leadership skills and professional understanding, which are the characteristics required of those who would lead the organization,” Netanyahu said. He stressed that the other two candidates were worthy of the job as well, and said he was sure they would continue to serve the State of Israel.
Cohen himself expressed his delight Monday evening at the appointment.
“I want to thank the prime minister for the faith that he has placed in me. I am excited by the scale of the role and its importance,” he said, according to the Ynet news website. The new spy chief vowed to do his utmost to provide “quality intelligence” for Israel.
Unlike most security posts, the appointment of a Mossad chief is that of Netanyahu alone, as the service operates under the direct authority of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The appointment did not come without some last-minute drama: The Prime Minister’s Office said Monday afternoon that Netanyahu would deliver a statement at 8.15 p.m, during Israel’s prime-time evening news programs, but the announcement was delayed for nearly an hour and news broadcasts speculated over the reasons for the wait.
Channel 2 news reported the delay was due to a “drama” behind the scenes after one of the two loser candidates was informed he wouldn’t get the job.
Cohen was born in Jerusalem, to a modern Orthodox family. They lived in Katamon, near the Netanyahus; his father, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, was a veteran of the pre-state Irgun paramilitary force.
A father of four, Cohen graduated from the Or Etzion Yeshiva high school run by rabbi and former MK 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 from 2011-2013, when he left for the National Security Council.
One of his operational nicknames is “the model” for his famously stylish and immaculate appearance.
Cohen’s primary challenger was Ram Ben-Barak. A native of Nahalal — Israel’s first moshav — Ben-Barak, a deputy head of the Mossad prior to Cohen, is currently the director general of the Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Ministry.
Ben-Barak headed 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 is considered one of Israel’s top experts in the use of modern technology in espionage.
In November, the Prime Minister’s Office 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 Nehushtan had “a very serious chance.”
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.