In August 2019, people close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard him utter a startling sentence.
“There are two people I consider fit to lead Israel — Yossi Cohen and Ron Dermer,” he was quoted by unnamed associates as saying, referring to the head of the Mossad and to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, respectively.
It was uncharacteristic of Netanyahu to speculate about his replacement, or indeed about anything that might suggest an end to his tenure as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. That fact alone led some to interpret the leaked comment, which was never denied, as a calculated signal to Likud MKs and leadership hopefuls that Netanyahu doesn’t see his politician-colleagues as his equals and plans to throw his support behind an outside loyalist when the time comes.
But others took the comment at face value, and for good reason. Dermer and Cohen are carefully chosen and crisis-tested loyalists who oversee for Netanyahu the two central pillars of his policy – and in his mind, his legacy: The complicated but vital relationship with the US, and the bitter, unrelenting campaign against the Iranian regime.
More than their predecessors, and likely more than their successors, both men are kings of their policy domain, enjoying the prime minister’s trust and able to drive daring policy moves even in uncharted, controversial waters.
Dermer famously orchestrated Netanyahu’s 2015 address to Congress to lambast the Iran nuclear deal, a move taken despite angry resistance from the Obama White House. He was also the key figure in the close relationship Netanyahu would later develop with the Trump White House.
But Dermer, it is generally believed, doesn’t seek a political career after his tenure as ambassador comes to an end.
It is spymaster Cohen, the long-time Mossad operations man who is widely believed to be behind the dramatic killing of Iran’s nuclear weapons chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week, who seems willing to take on the mantle of leadership, and seems to have Netanyahu’s blessing for it.
Cohen’s influence is hard to exaggerate. Since he took over the reins of Israel’s spy agency in 2016, the Mossad has grown rapidly in budgets and manpower, expanded its operational infrastructure and engaged in some of the most daring espionage actions the region has ever seen (according to foreign reports, of course). It has all but replaced Israel’s professional diplomatic corps and Foreign Ministry in the most strategically critical theaters, such as Israel’s burgeoning alliances with the Sunni Arab world.
First as national security adviser and then as Mossad director, Cohen has played a key role in helping Netanyahu centralize the most sensitive and significant strategic policy questions within the Prime Minister’s Office, cutting competing institutions and power bases, from the defense and foreign ministries to the security cabinet, out of the loop.
Into the limelight
Shortly after Netanyahu’s 2018 announcement that Israel had acquired Iran’s secret nuclear archive in an astonishing nighttime raid on a facility near Tehran, prominent Hebrew-language media let it be known that anonymous sources had confirmed to them that Cohen himself had personally overseen the daring operation.
In April of this year, amid the first coronavirus lockdown, it was again leaked to the press that the Mossad had engaged its “strategic assets” to bring to Israel vitally needed equipment to battle the pandemic, including ventilators and masks. In a moment of unguarded braggadocio by an unnamed Mossad official, it was suggested to reporters that the equipment had been daringly snatched from other unsuspecting nations.
It was a strange and clumsy effort by the vaunted spy agency, the sort that reveals more in its tone than in the information being conveyed. The claim that the Mossad had stolen medical equipment from other nations in the midst of a pandemic turned out to be an ill-judged attempt to imply there was a substantive cloak-and-dagger reason for assigning the purchase of medical equipment to the spy agency. Why hadn’t the Defense Ministry’s procurements division or the Health Ministry, both of which have more experience than the Mossad in negotiating and implementing large purchases abroad, been given the task? Did Israel really steal medical supplies?
It later emerged that the procurements were less exciting than initially suggested. The Mossad had turned to friendly governments and purchased from them equipment they believed they could spare. It made some errors in selecting the equipment, and some have suggested that it paid higher-than-market rates, but these mistakes remain unconfirmed reports, since all details surrounding Mossad activities (all details not leaked by the Mossad, that is) are classified.
And that’s the point. The Mossad’s activities are not accountable to the public in any direct sense. There is no easy way to verify or critique its activities. The organization answers to Netanyahu, and so credit for its successes need not be shared.
Those features — secrecy, loyalty and a hierarchy answerable directly to the prime minister — make the spy agency the perfect vehicle for a man like Cohen, with Netanyahu’s encouragement and support, to build his brand and public presence. Cohen broke longstanding Mossad tradition in recent years by appearing in public to speak about the agency’s challenges, giving interviews to the press, and sitting in the front row at diplomatic functions, sometimes even smiling to the cameras.
That publicity, alongside his oft-mentioned role in the negotiations leading to Israel’s recent normalization agreements, Netanyahu’s repeated public praise for the spy chief, and a steady stream of leaks to the media about the agency’s exploits in recent years, have made Cohen by far the most visible Mossad chief in the organization’s history.
But Netanyahu’s faith in Cohen runs deeper than his personal loyalty or the desire to groom a successor.
Cohen comes from a right-wing religious-Zionist family. He is the scion of eight generations of Jerusalemites and the son of a fighter in the right-wing pre-state Etzel militia. He shares a basic cultural and political orientation with the prime minister.
And he shares something else. Cohen and Dermer both agree with Netanyahu’s understanding of the chaos that is to come.
Netanyahu’s defining policy concern flows from his analysis of regional trends. He sees a Middle East set to grow far more dangerous and chaotic in the coming years as the Iranian regime is unleashed from international restrictions and runs roughshod over a politically and militarily debilitated Arab world.
Iran’s defiance of — and determination to overturn — the Westphalian state system in the region has already sparked a return throughout the Middle East to older, deeper loyalties and identities. It no longer makes sense to have an Iran policy distinct from a Lebanon policy, or an Iraq policy that assumes the central government in Baghdad is calling the shots in the country. The region is dividing along more fundamental alliances, between Shiite and Sunni, between conservative and Islamist.
In the wake of the Fakhrizadeh assassination, former CIA chief John Brennan took to Twitter to rail against the “state-sponsored terrorism” and “flagrant violation of international law” represented in the killing of a senior Iranian military official.
It was a moment of sharp culture clash. Obama’s spymaster lamented the violation of the Westphalian order, the challenge the assassination represents to the sacred immunities of officialdom. “These assassinations are far different than strikes against terrorist leaders & operatives of groups like al-Qaida & Islamic State, which are not sovereign states,” Brennan explained.
These assassinations are far different than strikes against terrorist leaders & operatives of groups like al-Qaida & Islamic State, which are not sovereign states. As illegitimate combatants under international law, they can be targeted in order to stop deadly terrorist attacks.
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) November 27, 2020
It’s an understandable view for a former senior American official, but the moral panic rings hollow in the Middle East. Even a cursory glance around the region reveals that the regime led by Ali Khamenei is determinedly transnational, funding, arming and controlling militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It has sent agents to bomb Jewish communities around the world and has spent the better part of the past 25 years trying to escape the strictures of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Not only is the Iranian regime no big believer in the sanctity of state sovereignty (except its own, of course), it shares with other Islamist movements a guiding creed that views the modern state system imposed on the Middle East by European powers a century ago as a straitjacket responsible for no small part of the weakness and disarray in the heartland of Islam.
Brennan’s response and the diplomatic outcry in some quarters that followed Fakhrizadeh’s assassination are viewed in Israel and in large parts of the Sunni Arab world as a kind of willful myopia that offers no safety or answers for those in the region who must contend with the hard reality of an expansionist Iran.
The Middle East is thus entering a dangerous time, according to this view, with powerful adversaries arming quickly, deploying vast arsenals of precision missiles, transnational proxy militias, and even nuclear weapons; with weak states and a quickly evaporating international security architecture as the American retreat leaves behind a vacuum only partly filled by local powers like Israel and Turkey.
Israel’s current spymaster rose through the Mossad ranks as an operations man, gaining a reputation for daring and clever exploits and winning the job of deputy director in 2011. It was from that post that he was plucked out by Netanyahu and appointed national security adviser in 2013.
Those years were a difficult period for Mossad’s operations branch. The killing of Hamas weapons smuggling pointman Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 was caught on security cameras that reportedly exposed the faces of a massive Mossad hit team. After that fiasco, the organization was said to take a step back from daring international escapades. Under agency chief Tamir Pardo, who led the organization from 2011 to 2016, few operations were approved.
Cohen got Netanyahu’s nod for Mossad chief in 2016 after promising the prime minister a return to bold and strategically significant operations — and a laser-like focus on Iran.
Cohen was reportedly key to the retooling of the Mossad’s operations in response to the challenges revealed in the Mabhouh hit: Namely, the ubiquity of cameras, biometric scanners (11 of the alleged Mossad hit team members reportedly had their retinas scanned as a routine measure at Dubai’s airport, scans later shared with Interpol), and other instruments of mass surveillance.
“To you it seems fun, that Instagram thing, that your cellphone can identify heads with a yellow square and a person can identify themselves almost automatically using automatic systems almost everywhere,” Cohen told a 2018 Finance Ministry conference. “But a great deal of the problems or challenges faced by [the Mossad] are tied to the fact that your actual passport is your fingerprint, your iris, your face…. Try to imagine in what world Mossad’s operational staff, Mossad’s warriors, are operating.”
The response, according to a detailed report in Haaretz from 2018: the Mossad under Cohen has shifted away from employing Israeli agents directly in foreign operations. In the December 2016 hit on Hamas drone engineer Mohammad a-Zawari in Tunisia, widely attributed to the Mossad, a large and complex international team, each part responsible for only a tiny portion of the operation and probably unaware of the other parts, carried out the strike. The hitmen themselves were reportedly Bosnian nationals.
That new modus operandi, the focus on mercenaries and unwitting accomplices, is likely responsible for the clean getaways in the cases of the stolen nuclear archive (confirmed by Netanyahu as a Mossad operation) and the Fakhrizadeh assassination (on which Israel is officially mum).
Indeed, if even half the reports about the Mossad’s activities since 2016 are correct, Cohen has delivered in spades on his promise to Netanyahu. And Netanyahu has responded with a growing reliance on Cohen and a dramatic expansion of his agency’s budget and personnel.
The Mossad’s budget is now reportedly estimated at well over NIS 10 billion ($3 billion) and with a workforce numbering, according to unconfirmed media reports, more than 7,000 — larger than all comparable spy agencies except the CIA. It’s no accident that Cohen’s 2018 comments about espionage in the digital age were made to a conference of the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department. Officials familiar with the agency’s operations say no budget request made by Cohen is denied.
The Mossad under Cohen has become an instrument of grand strategy for a prime minister worried about very large strategic threats. Its unique place in the Israeli government hierarchy gives it an independence and a flexibility that allows Netanyahu to conduct policy, unobstructed by political adversaries or public scrutiny.
And that has made Cohen himself the indispensable architect of Netanyahu’s far-reaching and many-layered campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear and precision-missile programs and construct new strategic alliances against the looming chaos.
Netanyahu sees in Cohen not merely a protégé, but the daring strategist Israel will need to safely weather the coming crisis. His patronage is as much a statement about where Netanyahu believes the Middle East is headed as it is about whom he deems a worthy successor to himself.
Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, if indeed it is Cohen’s handiwork, is only the beginning.