Spy chief says Israel has ‘one-time-only’ opportunity for regional peace

Yossi Cohen says Mossad task force believes shared opposition to blocking Iran and IS, combined with Israel’s ties to Russia and US, are creating possibility for Middle East amity

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

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

The head of the Mossad intelligence service said on Monday that a potentially one-time-only window of opportunity had opened for the Jewish state to achieve a regional peace agreement in light of shared opposition to Iran and Islamist terror groups, as well as improved ties with the United States and Russia.

“We created a task force that is focused on the field of foreign policy and strategy that is meant to advance [the cause of peace] with the various tools at the disposal of the Mossad and outside it,” said Yossi Cohen.

“The Mossad has identified at this time a rare opportunity — perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East — to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement,” he said.

Cohen made his remarks at the Herzliya Conference, hosted by the Interdisciplinary Center this week.

According to the Mossad chief, the opportunity comes from a shared interest with countries throughout the region in fighting Iran and Islamic terror groups, like the Islamic State, and from the close relations with the White House and the Kremlin.

“This creates a window of opportunity that is perhaps one-time-only,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) greets Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the sidelines of a regional conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 13, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Cohen said that although Israel only has formal peace treaties with two countries in the region — Jordan and Egypt — it has a number of unofficial “understandings” with other “pragmatic” nations in the Middle East, which “recognize the State of Israel as an established fact and cooperated with us with mutual respect and shared interests.”

The Mossad head did not identify specific countries, but Israel has in the past been said to be improving ties with a number of Gulf states, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Cohen said those countries are looking for “fair and realistic” solutions to regional conflicts, in an apparent reference to the current contentious US-led efforts to negotiate an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Iran ‘starting a fire’ in the Middle East

In his speech, Cohen accused the Iranian government of being behind a number of strikes on oil facilities and ships in the Persian Gulf in recent months, as well as an attack on the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad last week.

“I say to you, with certainty, based on the best sources of both Israeli and Western espionage, that Iran is behind these attacks. They were approved by Iranian leadership and carried out, in large part, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies,” he said.

This June 13, 2019, image released by the US military’s Central Command, shows damage and a suspected mine on the Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman near the coast of Iran. (U.S. Central Command via AP)

Iran has been accused by the United States and other countries in the Gulf of being directly or indirectly responsible for the attacks on the oil facilities, including most recently on two tankers in the waters off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last month. But Monday was the first time that the Mossad publicly accused Iran of being responsible for these attacks and for the violent protests around the embassy in Iraq, which were reportedly carried out by supporters of Iran-backed militias in the country in response to Bahrain hosting the United States-led economic peace conference last week.

“Despite being different types of targets in different locations, they are part of the same campaign being led by the same figure,” Cohen said.

He accused Tehran of trying “to start a fire” in in the Middle East.

The Mossad chief warned that Iran was extending the range of its activities and had established a 300-person cell inside Africa for that purpose. Cohen also noted that Iran has been accused of conducting and planning a number of terrorist activities inside Europe in recent years.

In an apparent reference to reported Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria early Monday, the head of the Mossad said Israel was not interested in a conflict with its neighbor.

Explosions seen near Damascus on July 1 2019. Syria says Israeli jets hit targets in Damascus and Homs (Screencapture/Twitter)

“But we can’t agree to Syria becoming a staging ground for Iranian forces or forces operated by it against us. We can’t agree to Syria becoming a logistics base for transferring weapons to Hezbollah and Lebanon. Israel has taken action in the past four years, overtly and covertly, about which only a small amount has been published, in order to block the entrenchment and the production lines of precision-guided munitions,” he said.

“Thanks to this effort, I believe the Iranians will reach the conclusion that it’s not worth it for them.”

According to Cohen, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Syria have started transferring their forces farther from the border with Israel in a bid to avoid further strikes by the Israeli military.

“Iran and Hezbollah are asking to move their bases to northern Syria, an area that they mistakenly believe will be difficult for us to reach. In addition, they are establishing bases and precision missile factories in Iraq, to the east, and Lebanon, to the west,” he said.

Israel has for years warned that Iran and Hezbollah were attempting to establish factories in Lebanon to produce precision-guided missiles, which would present a far greater threat to Israel than the less advanced projectiles that currently fill the terror group’s arsenals.

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