This intrigued Netanyahu, and he invited me to lunch a few days later. At that lunch he spoke at great length about Sadat, Carter, Begin, about Israel’s place in the Middle East, the deficiencies in its hasbara, the Soviet support for Arab terrorism, and much else. He made sense. I went home and told my wife that I had just spent a few hours with someone who, I was convinced, would someday become the Prime Minister of Israel. Now I’d like to make the same prediction – on the record here, time-stamped for posterity – about Yossi Cohen. Writes Hugh Fitzgerald
In the raid in January 2018 that was organized by Mossad on the warehouse in Tehran, where Iran’s nuclear archive was stored, time was of the essence. The Mossad operatives had at most seven hours in which to break into the warehouse, to unlock or blast open 32 steel containers, to empty them of what turned out to be 50,000 documents and 163 tapes, to study their contents and to decide what documents would be sent digitally to Mossad in Tel Aviv, and which were less important, and could await their physical delivery. Then, once that enormous task of sifting and weighing had taken place — how many hours did that take? — the Mossad agents had to load up the truck with all those stacks of documents, then all twenty agents had to climb aboard, to make their escape by truck onto the streets of Tehran, before the guards arrived at the warehouse very early the next morning. “In stunning, revelatory interview, ex-Mossad chief warns Iran, defends Netanyahu,” Times of Israel, June 11, 2021:
[Yossi] Cohen said they knew they had seven hours maximum at the site — “after that trucks and guards and workers” would arrive and “you can’t be jumping off fences and bursting through walls.”
The team neutralized alarms, removed the warehouse doors, and reportedly opened 32 safes holding the material.
Opening safes like those takes “more than minutes for each,” Cohen said.
He doesn’t say how they were opened: safecracking, or explosives to blast the doors open? Most likely the former, as it would be hard to muffle the sounds of explosions.
When images of the Farsi documents and other material in the safes were screened in the Tel Aviv command center in real-time “and we realized that we have what we wanted, that we are ‘on’ Iran’s military nuclear program,” said Cohen, “there was incredible excitement for us all.”
Dayan indicated that Mossad had numerous decoy trucks driving around the Tehran area to throw the Iranians off the scent of the single truck bringing the 50,000 documents and 163 discs out of Iran over land, and Cohen did not deny this.
Mossad, it seems, had thought of everything. Even that subterfuge of deploying decoy trucks so as to confuse the Iranians. Such careful planning makes a deep impression.
He said the Iranians knew by the morning that the warehouse had been emptied, and all exit points from the country were closed. “We knew they’d chase us,” he said. “We’d taken their most sensitive secrets.” Because of concerns that the material might not make it out, much of it was transferred digitally to Tel Aviv before the truck crossed the border, Cohen revealed.
And how exactly, if “all exit points from the country were closed,” did Mossad manage to get that truck filed with 50,000 top-secret documents across the border? He doesn’t say. Use your imagination: might members of the People’s Mujahedin have infiltrated the border guards, and be manning a certain exit point? Or were those documents transferred to a plane waiting to take off?
Cohen said he told Netanyahu “once we had left the site… that the first part of the operation was completed,” and that now the challenge was to bring the material home.
He said all the operatives are alive and well, though some of them needed to be extracted from Iran.
Netanyahu unveiled the trove at an April 2018 press conference, in which he called the operation “one of the greatest intelligence achievements in Israeli history” and proof that “Iran lied” when claiming that it is not seeking nuclear weapons….
He said all of Israel’s security chiefs discussed, together with Netanyahu, the pros and cons of making the haul public, and none of them opposed it.
Reminded that his predecessor Tamir Pardo spoke out against “humiliating the enemy,” Cohen was adamant that exposing the intelligence material was the right decision and that Netanyahu acted with “professional integrity” in this and their other dealings.
It was important to us that the world should see [the material],” said Cohen, who noted that he also personally briefed allied intelligence chiefs. And it was important “that it resonate with the Iranian leadership, to say to them, ‘Dear friends, 1, you’ve been penetrated; 2, we are watching you; 3 the era of hiding and lies is over.”…
Cohen, 59, was recruited by Mossad at age 22 when studying overseas in London. He grew up Orthodox, and was one of the few Orthodox agents in the Mossad when he joined. He said he’d 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.
That must surely worry Hassan Nasrallah. One Mossad agent working in your ranks undetected is bad enough. If Yossi Cohen says he recruited one Hezbollah operative, how many others, Nasrallah must wonder, has he actually recruited? And what have those operatives told Cohen and his men? One Hezbollah tunnel was dug to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet), was a kilometer (3280 feet) long, and penetrated 77 meters (250 feet) into Israel. 260 feet beneath the surface! Perhaps now the mystery of Israel’s managing to detect all of those Hezbollah terror tunnels is solved. Not some kind of electronic device, able to penetrate 260 feet underground, but the Humint, human intelligence, of Mossad agents inside Hezbollah, who were willing to locate – most likely for money – the exact location, and depth, of those tunnels.
…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.
Israeli negotiators must have made the case to the Emiratis that Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh had long been the main Hamas link to Iran, which was supplying the terror gang with weapons, and that Hamas was a permanent danger to the Emirates as it was to Israel. In assassinating Al-Mabhouh, Mossad had managed to foil Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch –both of which were also mortal enemies of the Emirates. That explanation found favor in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
“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.”…
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.”
He said he was wrong to have backed and personally helped arrange the influx of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar into Gaza in recent years. He stressed that this money was not intended for tunnels and rockets, but to help Gaza’s civilians. He believed that if the lives of Gaza’s civilians were improved, he said, “the motivations for crises and wars would be reduced. “I was wrong,” he said.
His clipped admission – “I was wrong” – is exactly right. How few leaders own up to their errors in that no-nonsense fashion.
He did not believe last month’s 11-day war with Hamas would erupt, for the same reason: “I thought we were in an ‘arrangement’” in which calm would be maintained.
Asked what he would miss most now that his Mossad career is over, Cohen said “the excitement at the completion of a successful operation — I won’t find anything like it.”
Still, he added, “someone once said, ‘You only climb Everest once. You planted the flag, now you go down and seek out the next summit.”
Asked in that context whether he hopes to be prime minister, Cohen said, “not right now.”
But you’ve not ruled it out? “Correct,” he said.
In 1978, I happened to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, who was walking with an acquaintance of mine in Kendall Square, near MIT. I made a critical remark about Sadat, who I said was running rings around Begin in negotiations, with the help of Carter and Brzezinski, and at the same time the Egyptian leader was being held up as a prince of peace in the media even as he managed to pocket the entire Sinai. This intrigued Netanyahu, and he invited me to lunch a few days later. At that lunch he spoke at great length about Sadat, Carter, Begin, about Israel’s place in the Middle East, the deficiencies in its hasbara, the Soviet support for Arab terrorism, and much else. He made sense. I went home and told my wife that I had just spent a few hours with someone who, I was convinced, would someday become the Prime Minister of Israel.
Now I’d like to make the same prediction – on the record here, time-stamped for posterity – about Yossi Cohen.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Yossi Cohen as Prime Minister. It can’t happen soon enough.
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