Shin Bet should resume COVID surveillance if daily cases top 1,000 – Cohen

Written by on June 23, 2021

For the last year, Eli Cohen, who was intelligence minister until June 14, met two to three times a month with a mix of Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) directors, deputy chiefs, division chiefs and other officials.

Although technically the prime minister has direct authority over the two bodies, the country’s leader does not have the time and attention to deal with the week-to-week issues that arise, so the intelligence minister steps in.

This allowed Cohen to get familiar with these intelligence officials on a level that few others do even within the government.

Asked to compare Mossad Director David (Dadi) Barnea to his predecessor, Yossi Cohen, who retired on June 1, Eli Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that “both Dadi and Yossi are very talented. Dadi will continue the daring character of the Mossad of recent years – he has the background and experience for it.

“I very much believe in Dadi leading the organization. What is different between them [Cohen and Barnea] is that Yossi joined the Mossad when was 22 and Dadi was out [of the security establishment after serving in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit] and then came back,” said the former intelligence minister.

Barnea “was a senior manager in a private bank. I came from the private sector. I very much believe there are advantages for private sector persons who move to the public sector – they are uniquely committed to getting results. They come with a business perspective, which is very directed at getting results and profits for shareholders.”

Someone from the private sector “brings a different organizational culture. I also managed private companies, and you only get compensated if you get good results,” he said.

In contrast, he said, public sector officials are used to being able to continue their “business” even if they are losing money and not necessarily achieving their policy targets.

He said that besides the inherent positive advantages he thought Barnea brought with him from the private sector, Barnea’s act of leaving his post as a high-earning senior banker was “very special,” adding that it is rare that someone says “I will leave my role as an investment banker to go into intelligence operations.”

Another difference between Barnea and Cohen is that Yossi’s “political aspirations led him to be more publicly exposed, whereas most former Mossad officials are quieter” – with the expectation that Barnea will make less waves in the media than his predecessor.

Regarding Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman, the former intelligence minister said “he was very driven to carry out operations. He did not believe in making a deal with Hamas, and recent events [referring to the May war] require Israel and the Shin Bet to consider tools that will have a greater impact on mixed [Jewish-Arab] cities.”

Pressed as to whether he was encouraging the Shin Bet to take over certain roles traditionally carried out by police, he clarified that the new security mission would still include a proper balance with the police.

Despite his respect for Argaman, he was not thrilled with the Shin Bet director’s public warning about incitement which many on the Right interpreted as focusing more on incitement on the Right, while ignoring incitement on the Left.

Next, he was asked about whether the Mossad is on the verge of having a female chief or deputy chief, often a requirement to be considered for the director role, given that Yossi Cohen and other former chiefs have expressed support for such a development.

In 2017, it was announced that two women – S. and Y. – had ascended to the Mossad’s high command, running the human resources and training divisions, respectfully.

With that background, either of them could have been considered for the role of Barnea’s deputy, but a male agent has been selected.

The former intelligence minister said that “a woman could be the chief, but we need to appoint whoever is best.”

He said he did know the high-ranking women in question and that “they were very high-quality,” and that he is a strong believer in equality within the Mossad.

Addressing the coronavirus, Eli Cohen said that he would support a return of Shin Bet surveillance of infected persons only if the volume of newly infected persons per day hit the 1,000 mark.

Asked why the number was this high, when in the past sometimes the Shin Bet surveillance continued until the newly infected person rates were down to around 500 per day, he cited great improvements in the country’s epidemiological analysis of infection trends and the vaccine.

However, above 1,000 new cases per day, he would strongly support the Shin Bet reentering the arena, noting that “no one can say there will not be additional pandemics in the future.”

Cohen also supported the idea of establishing a central agency for handling pandemic-era policy and operations, in order to shield some hard decisions from political considerations, such as has been done in some Asian countries.

He said such an organization would also serve as a storehouse for pandemic data and general knowledge.

JUMPING INTO discussing Iran and his legacy as intelligence minister he said, “There is a lot that is classified. Israel is threatened, and not just Israel but also the region and the whole world,” but we are “the only nation-state for which there are calls to annihilate us. No other nation is in the same situation.

“The change in the region during the [2020] year through the contribution of the Abraham Accords, with four deals, means that if, before, the region could be divided between Jews and Muslims, now it can be divided between” a pro-Western-Israeli-Sunni Arab side and a pro-Iranian side.

The pro-Iranian side also includes Turkey, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis of Yemen.

However, he expressed concern about developments in 2021 under the Biden administration, in which “I saw, after years of separation, a sudden resurgence of relations between the Saudis and Iran. This derives from an overly forgiving approach to Iran and a [US] approach of driving hard toward a nuclear deal.”

He said that any deal with the Islamic Republic would have no value, because of its dishonesty, and that the Saudis’ reengagement with Tehran did “not come from a desire to be close to Iran, but because there is no clear policy against Iran. This is also what leads to what we saw with Hamas in Gaza. Once extreme Islamists see weakness, they test us.”

Furthermore, he warned that a weak approach to Iran could halt the progress toward any new normalization deals with Israel.

Cohen rejected criticism from former Mossad directors who have said that the “maximum pressure” campaign led to Iran hiking up its uranium enrichment from the lower 5% level to the dangerously close to weaponized 60% level.

He said that however bad the situation is now, it would have been worse without the maximum pressure campaign.

Questioned about whether Israel would achieve more of its goals of weakening Iran if it had initiated a dialogue with the US behind the scenes about disagreements, but kept them out of the public view, he demurred.

“We cannot be obligated by a deal that doesn’t completely stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I hope this will be manifested in any Iran deal. We respect the US, and [President Joe] Biden is a great friend of four decades…. He is a Zionist… but we cannot ignore the threats from Iran and the history” of dangers to Jews.

Asked whether this meant there should be more Mossad attacks on Iran, like previous attacks on the Natanz facility, he said, “I cannot talk about specific operations. But I can say that the IDF and the Mossad’s top mission remains confronting the Iranian threat. This was also said at the changeover ceremony for Dadi.”

Cohen said that he held an intense, several-hours meeting with his successor as intelligence minister, Elazar Stern, and that he had made sure his staff meticulously prepared all the materials that Stern would need to hit the ground running.

He wished him luck and said that the intelligence minister can make a big difference facilitating budget and cooperation issues in the intelligence community when the prime minister’s gaze is directed elsewhere.

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