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Wanted: New spymaster who can watch Iran, forge secret ties

As Mossad head Tamir Pardo closes out term, the cast of possible replacements includes old hands from the clandestine service and tried & tested army chiefs

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Mossad head Tamir Pardo at Mount Herzl military cemetery on April 30, 2014 (David Vaaknini/ pool/ Flash 90)
Mossad head Tamir Pardo at Mount Herzl military cemetery on April 30, 2014 (David Vaaknini/ pool/ Flash 90)

As Mossad head Tamir Pardo readies to hand over the wheel of the spy agency after five years at the helm, his successor will need to be able to steer the organization both through the uncharted territory of monitoring a nuclear Iran and into the choppy waters of spearheading peace efforts around the region.

Earlier this week, Pardo, a Mossad officer who came up through the ranks and a political insider who served as the late Yoni Netanyahu’s radio operator during the rescue mission in Entebbe, appointed a new deputy, a new commander to the chief operations unit and a new head of human resources – a woman identified as Y, who will serve on the Mossad’s general staff, Yisrael Hayom reported.

These officers will be Pardo’s last major appointments before he retires in January. The next personnel shift will be at the helm. And for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems to have put an end to the sort of offensive actions that allegedly cut short the lives of several Iranian nuclear scientists on Iranian soil, the appointment comes at a time when the Mossad will likely have two primary tasks.

One will be the monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring, above all else, that Iran, if it signs a deal with the P5+1 this summer, does not stray from the parameters of the agreement, perhaps building a covert breakout facility somewhere in a country more than triple the size of Spain.

But as the Foreign Ministry bleeds cache with each passing year, the Mossad will also likely find itself with a major role to play in substantiating Israel’s covert diplomatic ties.

The agency is no stranger to such efforts, laying the groundwork for peace with Egypt under Yitzkak Hofi in the seventies, paving then-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s path to Rabat and Cairo.

Those secret relations, as published in non-Israeli news media, are run through the Mossad’s Tevel department and are likely playing a significant role in Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf and in North Africa, which, like Israel, fear a hegemonic Iran and an unchecked Islamic State.

The notion of a regional peace deal based on the Saudi peace initiative of 2002, although unlikely under Netanyahu, may also be handled, during the early stages, if at all, by the Mossad.

National Security Adviser and former deputy head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on September 2, 2014 (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash 90)
National Security Adviser and former deputy head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on September 2, 2014 (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash 90)

The most obvious contender for addressing these threats and, of course many others, is Yossi Cohen, the current head of the National Security Council.

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 Irgun. A father of four, Cohen graduated from the Or Etzion Yeshiva high school run by Rabbi Haim Drukman.

In the Mossad, he was the only skullcap-wearing 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 any clandestine organization.

The news is often filled with tidbits about 0.22mm Berettas and assassins on motorbikes, but the case officers are the engines through which human intelligence information is generated.

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 NSC.

Since then, he has shown himself to be quite active on the diplomacy front, even at the expense of stepping on others’ toes.

In May last year, at a Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting, then Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that the NSC under Cohen, who has been referred to in the Israeli press as “the model,” before his name was cleared for publication, was getting involved in Israel’s diplomacy, “creating duality and internal contradictions,” according to a report in Haaretz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen, Mossad director Tamir Pardo, and NSC head Yossi Cohen at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, to discuss the disappearance of three Jewish teenagers near Hebron, in the West Bank, June 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen, Mossad director Tamir Pardo, and NSC head Yossi Cohen at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, to discuss the disappearance of three Jewish teenagers near Hebron, in the West Bank, June 14, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Cohen’s primary challenger for the post is Rami Ben-Barak. A native of Israel’s first moshav, Nahalal, Ben-Barak, a former deputy head of the Mossad, prior to Cohen, is currently the Director General of the Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Ministry.

Ben-Barak served in Sayeret Matkal in the army and came up through the technology side of the Mossad’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. The newspaper report likely referred to an incident in which several combatants reportedly from the Neviot department, two of whom were women, were caught while changing the batteries on a listening device in an apartment building. The group was released shortly after trial.

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

According to one source, Ben-Barak is in pole position for the top job but the final decision has not yet been made.

Southern Command chief Tal Russo arrives at the scene of a terror attack near the Israeli-Egyptian border, where an IDF soldier was killed, on Friday (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Former head of the IDF Southern Command Tal Russo, center, at the scene of a terror attack near the Israeli-Egyptian border (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

In Israel’s 67-year history there have been 11 heads of the Mossad: six of them were career officers in the clandestine service and five were former army generals. The conventional wisdom is that it’s good to have an insider – both for the organization’s morale and for the officer’s knowledge of the trade – but it is often necessary to temper the inclinations of the espionage service with an army type.

In the IDF today there are two highly regarded generals with little to no room for promotion.

One is Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the current commander of the air force. Had Lt. Gen. (res) Dan Halutz, a former IAF commander, not struggled to lead the IDF during the Second Lebanon War, Eshel would be a candidate for the army’s top spot.

Today, a promotion of that sort seems highly unlikely, which is one of the reasons why columnist Yoav Limor of Yisrael Hayom mentioned him recently as a potential candidate for the Mossad post.

Israel Air Force Chief, Major-General Amir Eshel with American Ambassador Dan Shapiro (left), as he becomes the new commander of the IAF in May (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israel Air Force Chief, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel with American Ambassador Dan Shapiro (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The other officer Limor mentioned was Maj. Gen. (res) Tal Russo, who today heads the IDF Depth Corps, which is charged primarily with planning and coordinating Special Forces mission far afield.

Russo, who earned his officer rank during the Lebanon War without ever having gone to officers’ school, worked with Pardo during the Second Lebanon War on a Special Ops joint command.

He is, on the scale between the fictional George Smiley-like Efraim Halevy and the former commando Meir Dagan, firmly placed on the Dagan side of the spectrum.

The decision, to be taken in the coming months, is Netanyahu’s alone as the Mossad operates under the direct command of the Prime Minister’s Office.

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