Yossi Cohen, for better or worse, was the head of the Mossad unit for Iranian affairs. More than anything, it was his life’s mission.
The heads of intelligence organizations often took their foot off the pedal in their final year. The fear of a mishap, of unwanted entanglement that could cast a shadow over their term, causes them to take a step back and settle for what has already been done.
Yossi Cohen behaved differently. In his last year as head of the Mossad intelligence agency he actually put the pedal to the metal. There were quite a few reasons for this – operational, policy, personal – but the bottom line is that it was one of the most intense and fruitful years for the Mossad. In war and peace, covertly and overtly, in the face of enemies and friends (and even during the pandemic) – the hand of the Mossad was almost everywhere.
For some of these operations, the Prime Minister’s Award was presented yesterday, in an event where it was also officially announced that Cohen’s successor as head of the Mossad, David Barnea, will take office as early as next week. Those who attended the event could tell about the many smiles and pats on the back, which masked quite a few of the challenges that await the new Mossad director.
Cohen, for better or worse, was the head of the Mossad unit for Iranian affairs. More than anything, it was his life’s mission. The major operations he led were all aimed at Iran: from the theft of the nuclear archive, through the assassination of Project Manager Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, to the double hit on the nuclear facility at Natanz, all of which were attributed to the Mossad. Changing policy was also directed at Tehran: from urging the United States to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and impose crippling sanctions on Iran, to the “Abraham Accords” designed to give Israel a regional foothold and alliances in the face of the Iranian challenge.
Three main factors enabled Cohen to succeed in this task: The first is his character, and especially his willingness to take risks. The second, the full trust that Prime Minister Netanyahu gave him, and as a result, in the operations he led. And the third: the Trump administration, which fully backed Israel (Cohen, as a skilled agent operator, also knew how to leverage this for interpersonal ties in the administration, especially with former Secretary of State Pompeo).
Barnea’s life will be more complicated. His operational record shows that he knows how to take and manage risks, but his political-diplomatic background will look different. Israel is in constant political chaos, which may also affect decision-making on security issues. The fact that the three heads of the intelligence organizations (the IDF Intelligence Branch, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad) are all being replaced within a short period of a few months is also unhealthy if taking a broader view of national security.
The international arena has also changed dramatically, and the Biden administration is behaving differently from its predecessor – especially on the Iranian issue. The apparent return of the U.S. to the nuclear deal will directly affect Mossad’s activities, in every way possible. If Iran refrains from violating it as it did under the original agreement, violent Israeli actions will be borderline illegitimate. Therefore, the Mossad will have to focus on gathering intelligence that can point to Iranian violations of the agreement (if any), and form the basis for extending the agreement for another period. At the same time, the Mossad will be a key partner in building a contingency plan for the possibility that the agreement collapses, and Israel is required to address the threat alone.
The expected drop in offensive activity on Iranian soil will allow the institution to increase its engagement with the Iranian challenge in other fronts. The lifting of the sanctions – and the cash flow that will follow – will allow Iran to increase its negative involvement in the region, and its aid to its emissaries. This will require Israel to simultaneously increase counterterrorism activity in the nearby fronts (Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza) as well as, as reported, in the more remote ones (Iraq and Yemen). At the forefront: Hezbollah’s precision missile project, which has already been defined as second in importance to Israel after the Iranian nuclear program.
These challenges will force Barnea to try and expand Israel’s circle of influence – through the Mossad – in the Sunni countries in the region. The flow of peace agreements has been halted at this stage, but below the surface, it will be necessary to continue strategic coordination, regarding Iran and other challenges – from al-Qaida and ISIS, to the US abandonment of the region and the growing (and disturbing) establishment of Russia and China in it.
The head of the Mossad will also have quite a few internal-professional challenges in the organization. The operational world has changed significantly in recent years, against the background of technological changes. What was once done only Blue-and-White is now often carried out (according to foreign publications) by agents and emissaries. This is a trend that will surely expand, leading to structural changes and the closure and unification of operational units. This will require Barnea to deepen operational and technological collaborations with fellow organizations in Israel and around the world.
In at least one matter, Barnea is expected to pursue a completely different policy from that of his predecessor: public visibility. Under Cohen, the Mossad was everywhere, all the time. Cohen believed it was good for deterrence; his critics (including many in the Mossad itself) argued that it was mostly good for Cohen. Under Barnea, the Mossad will behave differently, at least for the foreseeable future. Less media, fewer mentions, less taking of responsibility, fewer “random” photos and interviews. “He prefers that his actions speak for themselves and not him, and that the credit be given to the Mossad and not to him,” one of his acquaintances said.
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