“On Saturday morning I was at my house in Modi’in,” said the former head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. “There was no siren, but the phone started going off, and people reached out to me, and that’s how I learned the magnitude of the horror. A year in the civil service, but you will never be sufficiently prepared for such a shocking event.”
What did you do?
“The first thing I did was to try to understand what happened. I started piecing together testimonies alongside all of Israel. I haven’t been in the formal update thread for two and a half years. Slowly the magnitude of the horror, which is difficult to describe, became clear to me as well.”
The ceasefire damages Israel’s ground attack capability and the continuation of the fighting. Are these the first signs of the end of the war?
“In every transaction of this type, there are trade-offs that we unfortunately have to pay. This is a negotiation with the devil who demands heavy prices from us that we must pay. The fighting will not stop beyond what is agreed upon, and I hope that the Israeli government will not hesitate from here on out, and will continue to eliminate the military capabilities of Hamas.”
“I am convinced that while we are completing the transaction in question, negotiations are underway for additional transactions for the release of all the abductees with the aid and support of the American government and intermediaries from the Middle East.”
Yossi Cohen and Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: MIRIAM ASTER/FLASH90)
Back to the events of that dark weekend. How could Israeli intelligence have failed like this?
“It’s impossible. We all know, including the military and the intelligence community and heads of other organizations, that Hamas has been building such an operation for a long time. I appreciate that an operation on such a large scale, with such a precise level of execution, with trained teams holding in their hands schematic diagrams of an operation as we have seen its result, in which there is a trained, competent force, well equipped both in the military and in intelligence – this is not something that is prepared from moment to moment, it’s unequivocally clear. In my estimation, this is about long months of preparation, so the intelligence failure is unimaginable.”
How is it possible that the army was not ready in the south, nor was it called in time in the midst of the massacre?
“This is something that will have to be investigated, and in the most in-depth way, and I am not reinventing anything. Also the head of the Israeli Defense Forces, the chief of staff, and the heads of other organizations – we will have to investigate all of them. How did this happen that a proper security system was not provided to the citizens of Israel?”
Does the Mossad also have a part in this?
“As the head of the Mossad during my time, the division of labor between me and the heads of the other organizations was that we take Hamas abroad and the Shin Bet responsible for Hamas in Israel. The IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet cooperate in an unusual way, in a complete and in-depth intelligence structure.
The Mossad can see all the updates of the other bodies, and other organizations can see what is received by the Mossad. We closely observe the intelligence assessments.
“But the practical work of who does what? Every organization does what it does so that we don’t step on each other’s toes, and a group called the ‘Committee of the Chiefs of Services’, which has the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet, the head of the Security Service, and the military secretary of the prime minister, who serves as an observer, makes the decisions of who does what. That’s where issues come up that we need to agree on in order to reach a correct national result.”
The defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet and others have already taken responsibility. Everyone, except the prime minister.
“The heads of the organizations admitted failure. Everyone who takes responsibility knows why he is taking responsibility. Those who do not take responsibility know why they are not taking responsibility.”
Why do you think Netanyahu does not take responsibility?
“I suggest that you address the question to the Prime Minister’s office.”
And what do you think about that?
“In the dimension of responsibility, as I perceive it all my life, as soon as you get a position, you are responsible for everything that happens.”
Do you feel any responsibility for implementing Netanyahu’s concept during your tenure as head of Mossad?
“I served as the head of the Mossad from 2016 to June 2021. I am responsible for everything that happened during my shift at the Mossad, for better or for worse. I cannot take responsibility for things that were done before or after my time, unless I saw things that happened and did not correct them, then I am responsible for not correcting them”.
Do you think that everyone who took responsibility, the Chief of Staff, the head of the Shin Bet, will or should resign at the end of the war?
“It’s their personal decision.”
Messenger for special tasks
Since his retirement from the Mossad about two and a half years ago and the cooling off period he took, Cohen disappeared, except for one well-publicized glimpse last July.
“I haven’t been interviewed for two and a half years, since my exit from the Mossad,” he said now. “The judicial reform is not correct, but I first of all asked the political level to stop the process, because this process, as I experienced in conversations with the members of the security systems, is an experience that definitely weakens the security forces. Whether they are right or not, we will discuss it separately.
“And I said: dear friends, all of you, stop everything, nothing will happen to democracy, let’s sit down, talk, think, and strengthen the army. I remember saying that I fear for our security resilience from the response to the legislation, that I fear that our ability to defend ourselves will be compromised. Think about my personal position, a national security advisor, a decent and dedicated citizen, a great democrat and a liberal, coming out and saying: dear friends, this hurts our security edge. Stop.”
After the October 7 massacre and the news that Hamas was holding kidnapped civilians and soldiers, it was reported in the media that Cohen went to Qatar to assist in negotiations for their release. “I did not go to Qatar on this matter, despite the publications,” he said now.
At the end of last month, the Prime Minister’s Office reported that Netanyahu had appointed Cohen as an emissary “for special missions.”
Demonstration by the families of the abductees (credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
Do you have an official position on behalf of the government regarding the hostages?
“I have no official position, and I never had an official position regarding the negotiations for the return of the hostages. There are other jobs I have done. One is according to the report of the Prime Minister’s Office, the other is in front of Gal Hirsch, to assist him when he received the position of supervisor of the POWs and Missing Persons.
I volunteered to be the link between the civil headquarters of the families of the abductees and his body, and that was the case for a certain period of time. Today it is no more, and I am left only at the civilian headquarters of the hostages, helping the families, explaining what is needed. But no longer alongside Gal Hirsch.”
Who is working these days on the deal to return those kidnapped?
“The people of Israel are a little confused, I know. According to Netanyahu’s announcement from last week, those who are doing the negotiations are Dedi Barnea, the head of the Mossad, and Nitzan Alon, the commander of Central Command for locating the kidnapped and missing persons, they are responsible for this.”
You are known to have connections in the Arab world. They say that King Abdullah is only willing to meet you. Why didn’t Netanyahu take you for the position, as the one most suitable for it?
“Because he decided to appoint someone else, that’s fine. This is the prerogative of a prime minister, to appoint to state positions whoever he thinks is the most correct and suitable to bring about a national result, and I accept the decision.”
We are negotiating with Hamas, but not all the hostages are with them.
“A deal with Hamas also includes a deal with Jihad. We have no direct contact with the Islamic Jihad, but from what I understand, Hamas takes responsibility for all the abductees. We know that there are also people kidnapped by civilians, I can’t say if they are alive. We started the war with thousands of question marks that were reduced to dozens.”
Yossi Cohen and Benjamin Netanyahu (credit: KOBI GIDEON/LAAM)
What happened between you and the prime minister?
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing happened. I am still standing right and ready for any assistance that is required and for any national mission. At the moment my relationship with him is professional and to the point.”
There are reports that you no longer come to the Prime Minister’s Office for consultations.
“The consultations, if necessary, I hold over the phone.”
From your acquaintance with the prime minister, do you expect him to hand over the keys after the war?
“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to estimate.”
Is a government commission of inquiry, as Netanyahu wants, a reasonable option in your eyes?
“Only a state commission of inquiry. I don’t know or think there is anyone who thinks otherwise.”
Meanwhile, these days there are calls to replace Netanyahu immediately. Do you think it is right to replace a prime minister in the middle of a war?
“It’s not my business to decide on the issue.”
We are the only country in the world today that faces a multi-arena war.
“There is no country that faces such a situation. There are countries that have unpleasant conflicts with their surroundings, but this is something related to the world of old. The Russia-Ukraine war is perhaps an opportunity to show that small countries can be threatened by large countries, whether or not they have the ability to fight and defend themselves. But the State of Israel is in a different situation, it is not in an existential threat and we are not in a communist war.”
Are we not in an existential threat? Nor facing rising antisemitism in the world?
“No. The State of Israel will certainly exist. There is no doubt that the Jewish people are going through a shake-up. Antisemitism that was probably hidden under the surface is now coming out with great force. It is a demon now out of the bottle. We know that antisemitism is a present and existing thing, which does not necessarily have a reason. All the researchers of global antisemitism claim that it happens for no reason.”
Do you think that with the end of the war, antisemitism will fade?
“It is difficult to assess. Certainly not immediately. Antisemitism is present, perhaps today it can be called anti-Israelism. Hamas is an antisemitic and anti-Israel organization, it does not accept our presence. Those abroad do not accept our existence, even as Jews.”