Yossi Cohen leaves Mossad with a brilliant record of many accomplishments. He has served his country as a real patriot, and possibly in the near future, he will remerge in Israeli politics as a Prime Minister aspirant. Writes Damsana Ranadhiran
Yossi Cohen, the outgoing chief of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad certainly is leaving the legacy of numerous achievements, including several stunning operations of the agency against terror-patron Iran’s nefarious nuclear ambition. There is no doubt, Cohen has succeeded in significantly reducing the threats posed by Iran as well as other terrorist entities in the Middle East.
Yossi Cohen, now 59, was recruited by Mossad at the age of 22 when he was studying in London. Hailing from an Orthodox Jewish family, Cohen was one of the few Orthodox agents in Mossad when he joined.
He said he had “hundreds” of passports in his career, and recruited hundreds of assets. He described one recruit as a Hezbollah operative recruited in Europe who he said is still alive.
Cohen said he hoped to become Mossad chief “from the second day” he worked for the organization.
Questioned about his ties to several wealthy individuals, including US-Israeli Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and the Australian tycoon James Packer, both of whom figure in one of the corruption cases against Netanyahu, he said that in retrospect, “you need to be more sensitive” regarding such ties.
He said a large gift by Packer for his daughter’s wedding was “being returned”. He denied it was as much as the reported $20,000, and said it had been approved by the Mossad’s legal advisor. He said Milchan offered him millions to start a cyber business, and that he seriously considered it and might have accepted the job if he had not been appointed Mossad chief.
He denied that Netanyahu ever asked him if he would personally “loyal” to him when he was considered for the top Mossad post. His rival for the job, codenamed “N.”, was reportedly asked such a question by Netanyahu and apparently failed to provide a satisfactory answer. Cohen also said he never discussed the post with Sara Netanyahu.
Of his relationship with Netanyahu, Cohen said: “I know I pay a price for my closeness to [Netanyahu]” and that “the relationship of trust I have with the prime minister is very useful for the Mossad’s operations and its development”.
He denied allegations that he is so close to Netanyahu as to have compromised the Mossad’s independence. “I work for the highest purpose. I don’t work for the prime minister,” he said.
Cohen’s success in normalizing relations between UAE and Israel
Deeply involved in the shaping of Israel’s 2020 normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, he said forging ties with the UAE had required “defusing the obstacle” posed by Mossad’s assassination in a Dubai hotel room in 2010 of senior Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas arms importer also wanted by Israel for terrorism. “It was a mine we needed to defuse… It was on the table” when the UAE negotiations got going. “We dealt with it. We removed the obstacle,” he said.
“There are operations that are exposed, to our sorrow,” he said of incidents such as the Mabhouh hit. “When it’s exposed, it hurts, it’s unpleasant and it’s embarrassing”.
He denied helping Netanyahu politically by trying to arrange a pre-election trip to the UAE before the March 23, 2021 elections. “Mossad work plans are not remotely influenced by the political background,” he said. “I wish that visit had gone ahead; the king of Bahrain was supposed to come to — it was important to the State of Israel”.
Asked whether it was appropriate for the Mossad to be so dominant in Israeli foreign relations, Cohen replied, “The Mossad of 2021, if you’ll permit me, in my view, has to be everywhere”.
Yossi Cohen, who retired as head of the Mossad last week, provided highly specific details of recent Mossad activity against Iran, his interactions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his role in Israel’s normalization with the UAE, and his own undercover career in an extraordinary interview on Israeli television broadcast.
Cohen intimated that his agency blew up Iran’s underground centrifuge facility at Natanz, gave a precise description of the 2018 operation in which the Mossad stole Iran’s nuclear archive from safes in a Tehran warehouse, confirmed that Iran’s assassinated top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh had been in Mossad’s sights for years, and said the regime needs to understand that Israel means what it says when it vows to prevent Iran attaining nuclear weapons.
In what would appear to be the most revelatory interview ever given by a Mossad chief so close to the end of his active service, Cohen, who was appointed by Netanyahu, said he did not rule out seeking to become prime minister one day, though he wasn’t contemplating such an ambition at the moment.
Cohen did not explicitly confirm responsibility for sabotage at Natanz in the interview, but said more generally: “We say very clearly [to Iran]: We won’t let you get nuclear weapons. What don’t you understand”?
Regarding Fakhrizadeh, identified by Israel as the father of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, who was killed in an ambush near Tehran in November 2020 that has been widely attributed to Israel, Cohen said that he was watched by Mossad for years and that the Mossad was physically close to him before November 2020.
Fakhrizadeh “most troubled us from the point of view of the science, the knowledge, the scientists of the Iranian military nuclear program,” said Cohen, and therefore “he was a target for [intelligence] gathering for many years”.
Asked whether he believes killings of potent Israeli enemies are worthwhile, Cohen said: “If the man constitutes a capability that endangers the citizens of Israel, he must stop existing”.
In some cases, however, Cohen said, Israel conveys the message to such a potential target that “if he is prepared to change profession and not harm us any longer, then yes” — implying such a target would be spared.
Damsana Ranadhiran is a security analyst