[To read this article in Hebrew, click מאת יוסי מל ]
In the month before the U.S. presidential election, the Mossad and the entire Israeli intelligence community have been on high alert. Not to intervene in the elections in favor of one candidate, but to make sure that total silence is maintained and that no sensitive materials are leaked, influencing the U.S. political process.
“Of course we continue to follow and monitor developments,” a former senior Mossad official told me. “We research, analyze and write papers about how the outcome of the election will affect Israel and its security and foreign policy – but we must make sure that none of it reaches the general public. If it does, it will be disastrous.”
Yet it is clear that many in the intelligence community, certainly Mossad head Yossi Cohen, from the narrow perspective of Israel’s security interests, want to see Donald Trump reelected. To say that Trump’s first term was very good to the right-wing Israel government led by Benjamin Netanyahu would be the understatement of the year. Trump’s favors were beyond expectations. The U.S. president showered Israel with many gifts. After 70 years of universal opposition, Trump moved the American embassy to West Jerusalem.
Trump has been under the spell of Netanyahu and accepted many of his suggestions and ideas: to walk away from the nuclear agreement with Iran; to re-impose against the Tehran regime crippling sanctions; and to minimize the role of the European Union in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump cut off financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, worth of hundreds of million dollars, and he drafted the “Deal of the Century” which further undermines Palestinian rights for sovereignty in the occupied West Bank.
Trump also pushed Arab leaders to change their traditional policy that they would not sign peace treaties with the Jewish state, before an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the removal of settlements. The United Arab Emirates was the first nation to succumb to Trump’s pressure and celebrated a peace ceremony at the White House. The ceremony took place last month – just before November 3 – to please Trump’s evangelical base and make Netanyahu, who faces a trial for corruption charges, as a secondary beneficiary, and thus divert attention away from their common trait: incompetent management of the COVID-19 crisis.
The small island of Bahrain was the second country to follow in the UAE’s footsteps and Israeli and American officials admit that the move was sanctioned by another Trump ally: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, who at this stage doesn’t want official diplomatic ties with Israel but is ready to lend a hand under the table. Thus, Saudi Arabia buys offensive cyber tools from Israeli high-tech firms and allows Israeli aircraft to fly over its air space, helping to shorten the distance and the flight time to the Gulf Emirates, India and the Far East by three or four hours.
In both cases, Cohen wholeheartedly supported the move and worked behind the scenes with the White House and UAE and Bahraini officials to make it happen. He flew at least once to each country to lay the groundwork for the peace deals and security arrangements, which are expected to benefits Israel and it partners. It has been the practice for decades that Mossad and its chiefs operated secretly as an alternative channel to the diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But under Cohen’s tenure, the spy chief has simply marginalized the traditional diplomats and blocked their access to sensitive missions in the Arab world.
On Friday October 22 Sudan announced that it would normalize relations with Israel and pay $335 million for US families whose relatives were victims of terror. In return the US would take Sudan off the list of states sponsoring terror and the UAE promised to help Sudan with financial aid. Trump also reiterated that five additional Arab states are contemplating to sign peace treaties and normalize relations. Mossad officials talk about Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco.
Nevertheless, the Trump-Netanyahu-Cohen relations are not a free ride. They resemble more of a horse and its rider. Trump has the whip but doesn’t need to use it. Netanyahu and Cohen are already tamed. They know their limits and would humbly accept almost any U.S. dictate.
They had to swallow their pride when Trump announced that he would pull all the U.S. troops out of Syria. “It was a blow to our policy,” admitted another Mossad veteran, “but eventually Cohen and Netanyahu persuaded Trump to leave at least a few hundreds servicemen who are still in Syria.”
Netanyahu and Cohen also were forced by Trump and Jared Kushner to cancel their plan to annex the West Bank and to reaffirm their commitment to the two-state solution, because it suited Trump and his son-in-law. Netanyahu and Cohen also were coerced to submissively accept the U.S. decision to sell F-35 fighters, the most advanced stealth warplane in the world, to the UAE, despite vehement opposition from the commander of the Israeli Air Force. Major-General Amikam Norkin expressed his fears that because of a deal worth a few billion dollars, in the foreseeable future, Israel could lose its air superiority and qualitative edge, and that the sale would set a precedent, allowing more Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to follow suit.
If Netanyahu is the architect-ideologue of building cozy relations with Trump, Cohen is the builder-operator. He provides the intelligence to justify the Trump-Netanyahu tango.
The officially nonintervention approach by Israeli military, security and intelligence bodies is a long-standing policy from the first day Israel was established in May 1948. It stems from the principle that democratic governments should not intervene in the domestic affairs and internal politics of other democratic nations – especially because of the unprecedented strategic cooperation between the two allies, specifically in the military and intelligence fields.
But that doesn’t mean that Israel has not operated on American soil in ways which eventually could have been interpreted as intervention in American political system.
When Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish-American navy analyst was arrested in 1985 as an Israeli spy, the Reagan administration and the general public were shocked. Many Americans, especially in the intelligence community, rightly saw it as a betrayal. “We were stabbed in the back by a friend and ally,” a former U.S. intelligence official told me. Then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres apologized, assuring President Ronald Reagan that it was a “rogue” operation and that the unit in charge, called Lakam, a secret agency responsible for the theft of nuclear, scientific and technological secrets around the globe, was disbanded.
But, in fact, it wasn’t an unauthorized operation. Lakam and occasionally Mossad worked systematically from 1948 to steal or unlawfully obtain know-how, data equipment and technology.
What most Israelis do not know and some Americans do not want to know, is that the Pollard affair was just one incident in a chain of many similar operations, most of them went unnoticed. Only a few were exposed.
Israeli secret intelligence agents, military personal on exchange programs and scientists and researchers on sabbatical in the U.S. systematically, under the order of their government agencies, stole, smuggled and illegally obtained equipment and secrets which have served Israel’s security interests. In the 1960s, uranium missing from a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania reached Israel to be used in its Dimona nuclear reactor.
[From Deep States: RIP: Rafi Eitan Mastermind of Mossad’s Uranium Heist]
The same reactor was also the destination of essential components – called krytrons – for Israel’s military nuclear program. The krytrons were purchased in the U.S. by Milcho, a company owned Arnon Milchen, an Israeli Hollywood producer who had served in the past as an agent for Lakam.
The most blatant intervention by any Israeli official was in 1972 by Yitzhak Rabin, then ambassador to the U.S. and later Israeli prime minister. The Washington Post interpreted an interview which Rabin gave to Israeli radio as a support for Richard Nixon during the election campaign over his opponent, Democratic candidate George McGovern. Rabin denied the charges and claimed the interview was “misquoted” and “out of context.”
Rabin’s interview serves as an illustration for the Israeli-American Jewry paradox. Most American Jews traditionally vote for the Democrats, while most Israeli governments, certainly led by the Israeli right and under growing influence of Jewish settlers, prefer Republican presidents: Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. Democratic presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, gave Israeli governments a hard time, by pushing them to make territorial concessions, dismantle settlements and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Among Republicans, only George H. Bush pressured Israel to make concessions.
But even when Israeli right-wing leaders, such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert (who shifted their policies from right to center after becoming prime ministers) had tough arguments with their American counterpart, they made sure to maintain the Israeli intelligence community as professional as possible and keep it out of politics.
The CIA-Mossad Relationship
In return, Israeli-American strategic cooperation reached new levels. It includes joint military exercises, deployment of US radar on Israeli soil, supply of raw intelligence,(which is not filtered and sanitized), by the NSA to its Israeli counterpart, unit 8200 and intelligence operations, in which CIA and Mossad operatives work shoulder to shoulder in the field against Middle East terrorists. One such an outstanding operation was in 2008 when the CIA and Mossad planned and executed together the killing in Damascus of Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh.
The change came in 2015 when Netanyahu was elected for his fourth term. It was a gradual process but the direction was clear. Netanyahu, against the advice of most of his military and intelligence chiefs, but with tail wind from Cohen (then head of the National Security Council) plotted with the Republican-dominated House of Representatives against Obama to torpedo the Iran deal.
A year and half later after Trump entered the White House, Netanyahu and Cohen grew in confidence. In a brilliant intelligence feat in January 2018, Israeli agents stole Iran’s nuclear archive from a storage house in Tehran.
It was a team effort, with hundreds of Mossad field agents, researchers, analysts and cyber operators as well as Military Intelligence officers, working side by side. Yet Cohen appropriated the credit and inflated his role. He embarked on a self-promoting campaign, invited Israeli and foreign journalists to his office north of Tel Aviv to compliment himself. In these meetings, Cohen compared the operation to scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster movie Ocean’s Eleven.
Against the wishes of most of his subordinates, Cohen advised Netanyahu to call a press conference and to reveal to the world the secret files. But before that, Cohen flew to Langley and personally delivered a copy of the archival documents stored in a portable flash drive disk to then CIA director Mike Pompeo. Since then, Cohen has met and briefed Trump a few times on matters on Middle East policies and became a good friend of Pompeo. Occasionally circumventing CIA director Gina Haspel, Cohen continues to work closely with Pompeo in his capacity as Secretary of State. Yet, despite the tensions between them, Haspel and Cohen who have met a few times in Washington and Tel Aviv pretend that their relations are good with no hard feelings.
In the meantime, it turned out that apart from the psychological shock and demoralizing effect on Iran, the documents reveal very little new evidence about Iran’s nuclear program, but they did assist Netanyahu and Cohen to further convince Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
Friend of Sarah
Imitating Trump’s efforts to dwarf his own intelligence community, Netanyahu too began to marginalize the influence of the Israeli intelligence community, judiciary and other “gatekeepers.” David Bitan, a member of parliament who is also facing corruption charges and is a close ally of Netanyahu, once complained: “Why all the security chiefs are left wingers?”
They are not. They are professional civil servants and Israeli patriots, but for Netanyahu that’s not enough. Having the loyal Cohen – who is also a good friend of Sarah, Netanyahu’s influential wife – on his side is not sufficient for him. Some 20 months ago, he tried to appoint a chief of staff who would be to his liking, but failed. He is sabotaging efforts to appoint a new Commissioner of the National Policy. And now he wants to nominate Meir Ben Shabat, currently the head of NSC, who is a loyal confidant of the prime minister, nicknamed “the Butler,” as the next head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s influential domestic security service.
Still, despite efforts by Netanyahu, Cohen and Ben Shabat to politicize the intelligence community and make it a submissive body, the Mossad and other agencies remain professional and politically unbiased. “It’s hard for me to imagine that the Mossad or any other agency will try to help Trump get reelected,” Haim Tomer, a former head of one of Mossad’s operational departments, told me.
“Cohen knows that all too well,” said another senior intelligence, “and he would not dare to order his people to get involved in U.S. elections, even if deep in his heart he might have entertained such an idea.”
Nevertheless, the way Cohen has managed the agency in the last four years (he declared that he would leave the position in June 2021 to enter politics) has sowed the seeds for undesirable consequences. “We in the Mossad have always prided ourselves on being a professional organization in the service of the state, regardless of the government,” I was told by another top Mossad official. “Many of Cohen’s subordinates are very unhappy about his self-personality cult and PR campaigns, his intimate relations with the Netanyahu couple and with Trump. The younger and mid-level Mossad generations are watching Cohen’s behavior closely and they already asking themselves why not imitate him? If he climbed the ladder by flattering the prime minister – why not us?”
Yossi Mellman is an Israeli filmmaker, writer and commentator for Ha’aretz specializing in intelligence and security affairs. He co-authored (with Dan Raviv) Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.