By YONAH JEREMY BOB
‘We know what is happening everywhere” in Iran, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told the Magazine recently, as installations continued to explode left and right in the Islamic Republic.
Like other senior Israeli officials, Cohen would not directly address whether Israel was involved in exploding Iranian installations, including the regime’s advanced centrifuges at Natanz. However, he did say, “Whoever wants to threaten Israel’s existence, will have no immunity anywhere… I say to Iran, ‘Don’t put Israel’s determination to the test.’”
When referencing that Israel knows what is going on all over the Middle East, he also mentioned the Jewish state’s recent achievement in being one of only a few countries that can launch advanced satellites. As far as preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Cohen said Israel would ensure that neither Tehran nor its allies would get a nuclear weapon.
“We will stop it.”
Some of this is breaking new ground for Cohen, who is an accountant by trade and performed his IDF service in an air defense unit. Born in Holon in 1972, he has risen fast since first being elected to the Knesset in 2015. By 2017, he was appointed economy minister, where he helped shepherd forward new Israeli policies to systematically encourage technological innovation. He was then appointed intelligence minister in the current government.
But the choice of Cohen as intelligence minister surprised many including Cohen himself, being that he does not have a special background in national security. He now commands a medium-sized staff of a few dozen officials split between two floors at the Prime Minister’s Office and another office using data mining and intelligence in new ways in Tel Aviv. More importantly, he now has the ear of the prime minister and the chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and military intelligence, and it was clear in his conversation with the Magazine that he is sprinting forward in absorbing information related to his new role.
During the interview, Cohen revealed that he has direct one-on-one contact about intelligence issues with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether in person or otherwise, usually more than once per week, in addition to often multiple cabinet meetings with the premier each week. The intelligence minister regularly meets with Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman and IDF intelligence chief Tamir Heyman, as well as other officials in their offices, and is given highly classified tours and briefings.
He admitted that while his background is not in intelligence, his “military service and good judgment help him ask the right questions” at the macro level – which some talented individuals who have spent their whole careers in intelligence might sometimes miss when they focus on the “trees” and day-to-day operational issues. Cohen also acknowledges that he was not given voting power in the security cabinet, but noted that since he is still present as an observer, he is exposed to all key debates.
Moreover, he said the minister who is “closest to the national security and intelligence bodies like the Shin Bet and the Mossad besides the defense minister is me. I am also the chair of the ministers’ subcommittee for the Shin Bet in place of the prime minister” and that Netanyahu often has him conduct those proceedings. This and his other connections with the intelligence agencies mean that Cohen is exposed to a deeper breadth of classified information than many ministers in the security cabinet.
Regarding who gives operational orders and appoints the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies, he said, “the prime minister decides and is the commander. I can give my recommendation.” But in terms of who “checks intelligence agencies’ strategic and budgetary working plans and cooperation between the different agencies day to day – I do that. The prime minister also has to manage corona, the economy, politics – so I invest my time into it.”
Asked to describe what was most unexpected for him in crossing the threshold from the Economy Ministry into the world of intelligence, he responded that it was meeting those working in intelligence. He added, “Many of them could make lots of money as civilians, but they choose to act out of a deep commitment to public service and to contribute to Israel’s security.”
Regarding the three heads of the major intelligence agencies, he said it has been interesting “to get to know them underneath their public personas. They are human beings and have hobbies” like soccer and other lighter interests.
Returning to the Iran issue more broadly, he stated, “My position is that Iran cannot be part of the UN because it calls for the destruction of another state. So the State of Israel will not sit quietly regarding its security concerns. We will act with all of our tools to make sure Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon.”
Regarding recent disputes between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency over inspecting two undeclared sites connected with the nuclear program, he explained, “The reason Iran is not granting access to the IAEA is you don’t give access to places that you are lying about and where you are perpetrating violations.” Clearly, Cohen believes that if the ayatollahs had allowed the IAEA access to the two disputed sites when asked, they would have been caught red-handed regarding nuclear violations.
Next, he was asked if the recent IAEA vote demanding Iran grant access to the two nuclear sites previously denied to inspectors was no more than a nice public diplomacy win for Israel, since the agency may refrain from taking steps to enforce its decision.
He responded, “There was a decision of the IAEA. I met with [director-general] Rafael Mariano Grossi in Vienna. I said to him that he has a heavy load on his shoulders. If the IAEA is going to actualize oversight and commitment [to following the rules], it must send the UN Security Council a recommendation for sanctions. Otherwise, it is not relevant. How are you relevant otherwise? My impression was that he understood that if Iran doesn’t let them go in to inspect” the disputed nuclear sites soon, there needs to be real consequences.
Cohen summarized, “The IAEA must send the issue to the UNSC” to reinstate sanctions.
Regarding both the IAEA and the EU-3 (France, Germany and the UK)’s approach to the Islamic Republic, he affirmed, “They know what Iran did [terror attacks] on European soil. History will judge them about how they dealt with a country” that spreads violence and chaos like Iran. “States that want to appease Iran are making a mistake… and helping it circumvent the sanctions.”
He added, “Iran is not only a problem for Israel. It threatens peace in the region and throughout the world. It is the No. 1 financier of terror organizations, especially Shi’ite militias, in the world. Any place you find Iran, the civilians suffer. In Lebanon, Hezbollah [allied with Iran] causes major economic harm to Lebanese civilians. Look at Syria and at Gaza. The West Bank Palestinians have a higher quality of life than Gazan Palestinians. There is only one reason: because Iran is connected to Gaza, paying Islamic Jihad and sometimes Hamas.”
The intelligence minister continued, “Iran’s civilians could also live better if its leaders did less with proxies. They don’t use their funds for their civilians, hospitals and combating corona, but for meddling in things that have nothing to do with them” across the Middle East.
Besides slamming Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism in the region, Cohen said it is crucial that in October, the UN continue the embargo on selling conventional arms to the ayatollahs. The embargo has been running for over 10 years, but according to the 2015 nuclear deal, is due to expire in October.
Pressed that the recent UNSC debate on the issue showed that many countries flat-out oppose extending the embargo and that others are afraid of what Iran will do if the embargo is extended, he stressed, “Iran only understands pressure. This worked in 2013 and also in 2015. But the EU-3 need to join us. They can’t stick their heads in the sand when Iran is seeking and will never stop trying to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Moreover, the Europeans “need to know that any sanctions relief means more money goes to terror and attacks in Europe.”
Cohen gave significant credit to US President Donald Trump for being the main force trying to maintain the UN embargo. Asked what happens if despite US pressure, the UNSC fails to extend the embargo, he said, “If others do not join the US push for extending it, the US can act with tools which are harsher” in some ways.
He said that the US could “impose its own sanctions on companies from other countries to convince them not to take part” in arms trade with Iran. “This could be even bigger” in terms of sanctions, as the US could decide the scope of the sanctions without having to dilute them in negotiations with other countries.
Covering Iran’s activities in Syria and Lebanon, he said, “What does Iran have to do in Syria? Are they helping Syrian civilians by building commercial businesses and sports stadiums? No. They are building an Iranian crescent that travels through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and also to Europe” to transfer weapons and promote its nefarious influence.
What would happen if Democratic presidential presumptive nominee Joe Biden is elected in the US in November and rejoins the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as he has pledged to do?
“The deal signed under Obama brought Iran closer to a nuclear weapon” in terms of the sunset clause, and being able to test ballistic missiles and advanced centrifuges, he responded.
“It created more resources for funding Shi’ite militias and terror groups. Once he [Biden] sees the latest intelligence reports, he will not want to” rejoin the Iran deal.
Furthermore, “We exposed Iran’s intentions when we seized the nuclear archives. No US president will dare to sign a deal which will get them a nuclear weapon and help fund terror.”
Essentially, Cohen is convinced that even if Biden takes a lighter tone with Tehran, he will seek some new concessions before agreeing to rejoin the nuclear deal.
Managing cooperation between Israeli intelligence agencies
Explaining the Intelligence Minister’s fundamental role, Cohen said, “Greater emphasis was put on intelligence cooperation [nationally and globally] after the 9/11 attacks…Some [US] intelligence agencies saw information” that could have led to capturing the attackers before the attack, but they did not share it fast enough with their colleagues across US intelligence.
He said that the goal of the Intelligence Ministry “is to be more like the Director of National Intelligence in the US, emphasizing pluralism, integration and jointness within the [Israeli] intelligence community.”
The intelligence minister was questioned about the 2017 State Comptroller’s Report which noted part of the reason Israel got into an unwanted and unnecessary war with Hamas in 2014 – the responsibility for warning of war was not properly delineated between the IDF and the Shin Bet.
Cohen, for his part, seemed to think the issue was not giving one intelligence entity sole responsibility, but properly managing areas where multiple players had responsibility.
“Sometimes multiple agencies work in the same arena. We need to ensure they work well together. These organizations are very strong and independent… All human beings have some ego, which is also good, since you want a desire to succeed.”
However, he said, “the success of the State of Israel must supersede all” individual intelligence organizations’ scoring of their successes.
Part of his job as intelligence minister is “to say to our different intelligence agencies, ‘This is a joint geopolitical challenge that we all need to work on together and we will work on this issue in many fields,’” so that they all realize they are not operating alone.
“Everyone has their added value,” which each of Israel’s intelligence agencies bring to the table, but everyone “must also share information.”
Hamas and Hezbollah
Regarding Gaza, he said, “Until now, Hamas’ strategy has not worked. They get funds, but they do not use it for their civilian population…We found their tunnels for smuggling in rockets – which we destroyed. But we have no dispute with average civilian Gazans. We left Gaza completely [in 2005], but there are crazy Islamists paid by Iran… receiving funds to attack Israel” and ruining Gazans lives by perpetuating the conflict.
Pressed that Mossad Director Cohen has been involved in helping facilitate financing from Qatar to Hamas, he said, “These funds are only for humanitarian assistance. Gazans must ask themselves why is life better in the West Bank” where the PA has eschewed any formal conflict with Israel.
Pointing to Hezbollah, the Magazine asked how Israel would cope with a daily barrage of hundreds of rockets sent by the terror movement in the event of an all-out conflict. The challenge is especially significant given that Israeli missile experts have told the Magazine that Israeli missile defense can stop Hamas, but not its northern adversary.
Cohen said, “We have many tools to stop them… including a diverse range of missile defense… I suggest no one should test Israel’s abilities. We haven’t used all of our abilities to date – only a small amount.”
The implication appeared to be that a combination of Israel’s massive air strike capabilities along with its multiple levels of missile defense would be able to deter Hezbollah and provide an answer, despite the concerns noted by missile defense experts.
Also, he urged the EU and others to press Iran to stop funding Hezbollah, saying, “Without Iran, Hezbollah would not survive. There is no dispute between Lebanon and Israel over any territory, so why is Iran funding Hezbollah?”
Although the situation is unclear regarding whether Netanyahu is still serious about applying full or partial Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, Cohen said, “We have a historic option to realize our Jewish historic rights to the land. There are 21 Muslim or Arab countries around us; there is only one Jewish land.”
He then addressed the moderate Sunni Arab states which have strenuously protested any Israeli annexation move that is not part of a package peace deal endorsed by the Palestinians themselves. “If not for the power of the US, how things would turn out for these states with Iran is doubtful. Normalization with Israel is an interest for them also,” noting they can benefit from Israel at the military, economic and technological levels.
Cohen urged the Gulf States, “Don’t wait for the Palestinians. I doubt if they will say yes [to peace] for the next 30 years… but we can have peace with you [like with Egypt and Jordan].” He warned that without moving forward with the US and Israel, these countries are threatened from within by radical Islamists.
Overlap with the NSC
Regarding the claim that the National Security Council and the Intelligence Ministry do repetitive work, he responded, “We work well with the NSC. It also works on national civilian issues whereas we are more focused on security and clandestine issues.”
As to the Intelligence Ministry’s involvement in combating the coronavirus, he said the ministry’s research had provided evidence for the Shin Bet surveillance being effective and that he believes the program is saving lives.
At the same time, he noted, it is not violating citizens’ privacy rights. Cohen hopes the country will soon return to a situation where there are 300 or fewer new infections per day and at that point, the Shin Bet surveillance could be paused.
Subsequent to the interview with the Magazine, as part of a task force he is leading on the issue, Cohen announced that another way to end the Shin Bet program would be if 1.68 million of Israeli cellphone users (about a third of users) voluntarily download the new Magen 2 contact-tracing application.
Cohen warned that national security and intelligence agencies frequently get lost on the global scale, focusing on the last war or threat and insufficiently looking at future wars and how much the world is changing.
“Technology is evolving substantially in a wide range of areas. Israel has fewer than 10 million people in a small area, but we are thought of as a technological powerhouse… cyber can also move between the military and civilian dimensions. It can be used for water and agricultural technologies… Many tried to use oil resources to destroy us… we try to use our cyber talent to build and improve humanity.”
Incidentally, Cohen was meeting with top cyber officials shortly after meeting with the Magazine. He added that he wanted “to see our cyber capabilities and planning ready for every scenario.”
There is no question that Cohen is highly motivated to show mastery of the new area he is helping to shape, as well as to get the country ready for both anticipated and unanticipated future challenges.
Source: The Jerusalem Post