The Surfacing Submarine Submerging (Again)

by July 2021
Yossi Cohen during a reception held at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in 2018. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Some phrases have a history behind them. In early June 1974, 52-year-old Yitzhak Rabin, who as chief of staff led the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the Six-Day War and then spent five years in Washington as his country’s ambassador, found himself in the top spot of prime minister. Having been barely five months in politics, he had to weigh his words carefully. Rabin succeeded Golda Meir, a full generation his senior; he wanted to signal a new chapter for Israel, much needed after the bitter disillusionment of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Still, he was wary of breaking with his political power base in Meir’s old guard of the Labor Party. The formula he used, therefore, to placate all audiences was “continuity and change.”

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

The phrase still has value. Early this June, a change of command ceremony took place at the Mossad headquarters, on the northernmost line of Tel Aviv’s jurisdiction. David Barnea, totally unknown to the public until his name was released the week before, stepped forward to take the helm of Israel’s foreign intelligence and special missions agency, relieving Yossi Cohen, who presided over this veritable brand of Jewish ingenuity and James Bondish capers since January 2016. Barnea’s charge, inevitably, is that tricky dyad, change and continuity: looking ahead to a fresh start and a timely response to new challenges, without totally repudiating the immediate past, with its notable achievements—and question marks.

The Mossad used to be a stealthy submarine, best operating without anyone noticing its movements, leaving its adversaries—and usually advocates, too—in the dark. Under its new chief, it will revert to being a silent service.

The Mossad (Hebrew for “institution”; hence a number of jokes about people who need to be institutionalized) is unique for several reasons. It does not have a specific law governing its actions. Legislation efforts reached draft levels but were aborted when Justice Ministry officials concluded that most of what the Mossad does abroad is illegal under the unsuspecting host’s laws. Without a legal provision for the appointment of the Mossad chief, it is left to the prime minister’s sole discretion, requiring only a notice to other ministers; theoretically, a phone call or email would suffice. Once in office, the Mossad chief runs a very tight ship; in some sense, it is the prime minister’s “private army.” It is run in a highly centralized fashion, and although it is a civilian agency, it is stricter than the all-too-Israeli informal and relaxed style of the military.

Cohen and Barnea both came through the ranks in the agency’s human intelligence (HUMINT) division, popularly known by its legacy name, Tzomet (Hebrew for “junction”), then serving as deputy chief before being promoted. It speaks to the centrality of HUMINT in the Mossad’s operations; at least in theory, it is the agency’s most important mission, yet not too much should be read into it. Cohen and his second number two, turned successor, are almost polar opposites, personality-wise: the former, an extrovert relishing in the limelight and the latter, a cool and modest introvert not likely to be found in gossip columns.

The Mossad used to be a stealthy submarine, best operating without anyone noticing its movements, leaving its adversaries—and usually advocates, too—in the dark. But under Cohen, perhaps because of his personal ambition and to some extent because of the close attention of his political superior, Benjamin Netanyahu, the submarine surfaced too often. It basked in the sunny glory of dramatic achievements but dangerously courted the vulnerability of a destroyer or missile boat. Barnea will surely order it to submerge again.

Israel’s system of government rules out a straightforward comparison of the Mossad to the American CIA or the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). David Ben-Gurion, who went on to conduct the political-military orchestra of Israel’s establishment in most challenging circumstances, lived in London for a while during the Nazi blitz of World War II and was deeply impressed by Churchill’s modus operandi—creating a defense ministry out of separate services and adding the defense portfolio to his premiership. Applying this lesson in the pre-1948 years and then as prime minister, Ben-Gurion fought against various militias and branches who wished to keep their semi-independence, whether for political reasons or professional ones. Because he was minister of defense, as well as prime minister, all the important intelligence and security services reported to him under either role.

Ben-Gurion controlled the civilian services, the domestic intelligence agency, the General Security Service (Shin Bet, or Shabak, by its Hebrew acronym), and its foreign activity counterpart, the Mossad, as well as the uniformed Military Intelligence Directorate. The latter has always been most crucial to the survival of a nation perpetually alert between rounds of conflict and anxiously listening to the ticking of a doomsday clock. But until the early 1960s, its chief, also subordinate to the IDF chain of command, was not a leading officer on the General Staff—a chief of staff prospect.

Through other ministers, Mapai, Ben-Gurion’s ruling party and Labor’s predecessor, supervised the lesser intelligence elements of the Foreign Ministry (a small research department, after a so-called spy revolt led to the disbanding of the thinly veiled Political Department), and the national police, whose special branch emulated the British system. They were, however, secondary to the security services, a reference to both Shin Bet and Mossad, because as long as Ben-Gurion was in power, and Isser Harel was the highest authority of both, lines were blurred, and officers—and sometimes even whole units or squads—were loaned to the sister service.

Up until the 1960 abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, the Mossad was relatively obscure and the Shin Bet had gained a reputation for spy-catching, especially of Soviet bloc agents or case officers running Israeli assets. Twins they may have been, but they were rather like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. The Mossad’s contribution to Israel’s security was quite marginal; Nazi hunting in Latin America and finding an Orthodox Jewish boy spirited out of the country were perhaps good for morale and governance but did little to prepare Israel for the existential test of war.

It was only in mid-1963, after 15 years of the Ben-Gurion era, that the Israeli intelligence community took a more modern and effective shape whose basic outline is still being followed today. Successive commissions recommended the appointment of a director of national intelligence in one form or another (as “coordinator,” or “prime minister’s advisor” for intelligence affairs). This, however, did not bring about a change in the patterns of power. The Military Intelligence–Mossad–Shin Bet triangle has not been transformed: What did change is the emergence of a unique competitive and collaborative collegium of co-equals, with no single source of authority below the prime minister in person.

As its role grew, the Mossad successfully defended its turf against at least three other organizations that had some claim of being part of the intelligence community: the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Political Research, established following the 1973 assessment failure by the Military Intelligence Directorate; the Israel Police’s Intelligence Department (within the Investigations Division), and the Office of Security for the Defense Ministry (and defense industries). They never received the privileges accorded to the Big Three (and except for police officers, whose hierarchy is pegged to the military, they were denied the same generous salary and benefits). Their heads were not invited to the main table of the service heads’ committee, whose fourth ex-officio participant is the army brigadier—or major—general serving as the prime minister’s military secretary.

There are two main bureaucratic reasons for this setup. One is the chain of command. Military Intelligence answers to the security cabinet headed by the prime minister, but its director, a serving major general, is appointed by the chief of staff with the approval of the defense minister. The prime minister’s consent is not needed and is usually not sought, as defense ministers jealously guard their territory. Of course, one way around it is the Ben-Gurion model, but it has rarely been used since the mid-1990s. The Defense Ministry came to be considered a plum job for the prime minister to give to a party baron or a key coalition partner. Through the 1982 Lebanon war and with a couple of notable exceptions, the directorship of Military Intelligence was considered the graveyard of military careers, as commissions of inquiry tended to channel responsibility for intelligence blunders to its occupant.

For professional Military Intelligence officers who came up through the ranks in this branch, the directorship of Military Intelligence was still the most coveted job, much like fighter pilots dreaming of heading the Air Force; however, for combat arms generals with aspirations of becoming chief of staff, it was anathema. They did their best to stay away from it, or if prevailed upon by their superiors to become the director of Military Intelligence, they would spend as little time there as decently possible and move on, before the inevitable cruel failure.

In one memorable anecdote, Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann wanted a seasoned ground forces general officer—a consumer of intelligence who knows what to ask for, rather than an intelligence pro, versed in generating the product to consumers—as head of Military Intelligence. He turned to the commanding general of the Central Command, Moshe Levi, who evaded and resisted until Weizmann was tired of it. Levi admitted that he wanted to stay on a path to the top and his bet that the vindictive Weizmann would not be there much longer proved correct: Five years later he fulfilled his ambition, becoming the tallest officer (literally: his nickname was “Moshe and a half”) ever to command the IDF.

After Levi’s term as chief of staff, the pendulum swung, and three of the five succeeding IDF chiefs had actually served as head of Military Intelligence, as did the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, as well as his heir presumptive, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi. Making the shift not just possible but almost necessary was the rising importance of real-time intelligence not only in early warnings for war, terror, or technological threats but also in the actual conduct of operations—the so-called “sensor to shooter” concept that has transformed the battlefield. In a sense, a profound understanding of this aspect became a prerequisite for high command.

The Rabin murder, partly due to security lapses, removed the veils from the faces of officials heretofore known only by their initials. Public accountability became a prime parameter.

Meanwhile, the Mossad and Shin Bet heads enjoyed—or suffered from—anonymity until just after Rabin’s assassination in 1995. An air of mystery surrounded them and their services, adding to their aura as omniscient and omnipresent. The rationale given to the censor’s strictly enforced edict was that these chiefs were sometimes personally leading operations abroad. If their identities were known, their pictures would be distributed by rival security services. Operations would be botched and local agents exposed. “Former Mossad chief” is still a very respected title in Israel, but several retired chiefs and deputy chiefs from either service entered politics and warmed Knesset benches, leaving an impression of mediocrity rather than brilliance. One outspoken Arab parliamentary colleague even quipped that being acquainted with them had destroyed for him the myth of the Mossad (and Shin Bet) masterminds.

The Rabin murder, partly due to security lapses, removed the veils from the faces of officials heretofore known only by the initials of their names. Public accountability became a prime parameter. The electorate was finally given an indirect de facto role in prior scrutiny of candidates for these sensitive positions, although there is no mechanism such as a Senate hearing in the Israeli system of government.

The first two Mossad chiefs who assumed the position fully identified, Danny Yatom (Rabin’s military secretary, among other IDF positions) and Efraim Halevy (also a former deputy Mossad chief and Israel’s ambassador to the EU), were low key. But Halevy’s successor, retired Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan, relished his public persona and the political patronage bestowed on him by an old army mentor, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Dagan also adopted some of Sharon’s pet tastes and distastes. Sharon had taken an aversion to Netanyahu, whom he belittled as “the captain,” (Netanyahu’s reserve rank), and Dagan, on some issues, did not hesitate to stand up to Netanyahu after his return to office.

Another Meir, Maj. Gen. Meir Amit, was the creator of the modern Mossad in the 1960s, post-Isser Harel. Amit, the operational planner of the successful 1956 Sinai campaign, agreed to take a lateral and even downward move to Military Intelligence in order to boost the demoralized corps. He was then asked to bring his talents to the Mossad, as Harel had a falling out with Ben-Gurion. Amit was wartime oriented. He saw his paramount duty as helping the government and his General Staff colleagues to avert war, opening secret channels to enemies such as Egypt’s Nasser, and preparing for war should it be waged. Amit, outgoing and in particular a close friend of his successor at the Military Intelligence Directorate, Aharon Yariv, was instrumental in laying the ground for the swift Israeli victory of 1967. Like Amit (and Yariv), Dagan felt that he had to answer to no authority but only that of the truth and of his duty as he saw it.

‘The captain.’ Benjamin Netanyahu and Meir Dagan. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Several former Military Intelligence chiefs, resenting the reverence granted to the Mossad in public lore, have taken to compare Military Intelligence to an aircraft carrier, slow but robust with a powerful punch, while the Mossad was more of a speedboat darting around, able to sting but not to land (or withstand) a crushing blow. It would be nice to have in a support role, but not the difference between national life or death. (Some of these same detractors would also wish, upon retirement from the IDF, to captain that small vessel).

The Military Intelligence’s claim to fame, or to the part they were allowed to gain despite the secrecy, has to do with its multi-dimensional universe. It supplies strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence to the prime minister, to soldiers in the field, and to all echelons in between, and supervises units and agencies that are independent in other nations. The most salient case in point is Unit 8200, Israel’s opposite number to the United States’ National Security Agency (whose chief is dual-hatted in charge of Cyber Command) and the United Kingdom’s GCHQ. The one-star Israeli officer commanding this powerhouse of signal intelligence and cyber warfare has an American three-star and occasionally four-star counterpart, who reports to the secretary of defense, while the Israeli Military Intelligence brigadier general is far below in the hierarchy.

There is also Unit 9900 for visual intelligence (VISINT), combining the functions of the American National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial Agency, under a mere colonel: The IDF is evidently short at least one rank in its organizational chart but cannot fix it, because all other services will follow it with severe budgetary implications. Be it as it may, the Military Intelligence’s forte is, first of all, its input into operational planning and targeting, as well as its intimate involvement in timely pinpointing and shepherding strikes during campaigns such as the most recent one in Gaza. Its responsibilities as the leading intelligence agency, in charge of the national intelligence assessment, has to do with collection through various technical means, exploitation of these resources, and the distilling of this product to credible analysis and early warnings of both imminent crises and potential opportunities.

An estimated 90% of actionable intelligence is acquired, produced, and disseminated by the Military Intelligence’s high-tech facilities, a veritable melting pot of all-source items, innovatively helped by artificial intelligence. The unprecedented ability to see through the underground cover of Hamas’s movements was one of the latest crowning achievements.

Yet Military Intelligence—soon to be handed over from Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman to his friend and colleague in the field, Aharon Haliva, until recently the General Staff’s operations chief—does not enjoy the international esteem usually accorded the brand-name Mossad. And the officers who commanded armor and paratrooper brigades and divisions are not glorified in the media the way the publicity-savvy, sleek charmer, journalist-cultivator Yossi Cohen has been in his years in office.

Cohen owed his rise up the ladder to his skill in recruiting and running assets, but his final ascent in a competition with other talents had to do with turning his HUMINT qualities on the most worthwhile targets of all, those who could help his promotion. He was recommended by one of Netanyahu’s benefactors, who is at the center of Netanyahu’s corruption trial. When Netanyahu decided to appoint Dagan’s successor and settled on Tamir Pardo, a former Dagan deputy, he conditioned it on Pardo’s accepting Cohen as his own deputy. It was a package deal Pardo could not turn down; no Mossad officer would have, given the chance to fulfill a lifetime ambition.

A flashy submarine captain has disembarked. His former executive officer, now the ship’s master, will order it submerged, sneaking up on targets to take their measures or torpedo them, without the fanfare.

Before Netanyahu changed his mind and retracted his offer to Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin to move over to the Mossad, he reconsidered the implications of a Diskin appointment. Dagan—close to Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert, also a rival of Netanyahu—together with Diskin, Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and President Shimon Peres were all party to blocking Netanyahu’s plan to preemptively attack the Iranian nuclear enterprise. Netanyahu wanted a yes-man, one so grateful for the favor as to obediently do the prime minister’s bidding, even against his own best judgement. Diskin was too independent, too dissenting from Netanyahu’s Iran policy, to serve this purpose.

“How can I know that you will be personally loyal to me?” lobbed Netanyahu a direct question at Pardo. One does not become a Mossad chief by being a saint, and Pardo—the communications officer at the side of Netanyahu’s brother Yoni during the fateful last moments of his life—found a way to answer by a question of his own: “Do you think there was any doubt when I ran with Yoni under fire at Entebbe?”

Pardo got the five-year term, extendable by mutual agreement, and Cohen started working on a plan to succeed him. When his deputyship was over, he got himself seconded to Netanyahu’s bureau as national security advisor heading the National Security Council. He was a cautious performer there, but managed to get closer to his boss, and no less importantly, to Netanyahu’s wife Sara, with her reputation of being able to kill the candidacies of contenders who ran afoul of her.

Once in, Cohen presided over a period of expansion and construction at the Mossad headquarters. Although still highly compartmented and closed to most outsiders, it is no longer an intimate club. Many of its officers, and even more so its veterans, resent Cohen’s style and his transparent ties with Netanyahu: The latter went so far as to ruminate about him as a potential successor once, or if ever, the Likud party leadership becomes vacant.

The criticism had to do with the credit openly claimed by Netanyahu, and implicitly by Cohen, for operations that used to be shrouded with secrecy, such as spiriting the Iranian nuclear archive out of Tehran (actually in collaboration with Military Intelligence) or provoking the Iranians by all but announcing that Israel, via the Mossad, pulled the trigger in assassinations of key nuclear experts.

The Mossad has adapted with the times, meeting the needs and openings of the digital age with a major technological effort going back to Dagan and Pardo’s terms, but has above all remained a man-in-the-loop agency. In HUMINT operations, of course, agents are still necessary to penetrate and enable SIGINT and cyber in liaison with foreign services and government officials and to gain access to the inner circles of hostile—or friendly—rulers, whose intentions are difficult to decipher.

David Barnea, who until late last month could have roamed with impunity city streets from Tel Aviv to Tehran, does not have to fill Cohen’s shoes. He has his own in what seems like the exact right size, minus the bravado. Continuity in substance will be coupled with change in style: correct and not close to the several prime ministers expected to serve during Barnea’s tenure. He will be the un-Cohen, not his clone. Under Barnea, the Mossad will revert to being a silent service. A flashy submarine captain has disembarked, ready for new personal, perhaps political, pursuits. His former executive officer, now the ship’s master, will order it submerged, sneaking up on targets to take their measures or torpedo them, without the fanfare.

>> Inside Intelligence: Read more from Amir Oren

Amir Oren
Amir Oren has been covering national security, intelligence, and foreign affairs as a combat correspondent and commentator for decades. He is a regular lecturer at defense colleges and intelligence and diplomacy fora in Israel, Canada, the EU, and NATO. @Rimanero
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