When Joe Biden first elected president, reports emerged that sometime in February Mossad Director Yossi Cohen would lead a delegation to jump-start talks over the Iran nuclear standoff.
Some reports indicated that Cohen would be given an official status, as he received in the beginning of the coronavirus crisis when the Mossad was put in charge of acquiring medical equipment. The idea floated seemed to indicate that he would also receive authority over officials from a variety of government ministries.
If and when that trip takes place remains unclear. The ongoing speculation about why Biden has not yet called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has added to the feeling that Jerusalem might need to adapt its plans and strategies to match Washington’s outlook.
Whatever Biden’s timeline is for moving forward on the Iran issue – be it before Tehran’s June elections or at a later date – the identity of the Israeli emissary has become clouded as time goes by.
Cohen was seen as a natural candidate. He was, for example, unhappy after IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi criticism of the strategy of reentering the 2015 nuclear deal or even trying to negotiate an improved deal.
In recent days, senior IDF officers have leaked that they are also unhappy with the idea that Cohen will represent Jerusalem in the US because they consider him too aggressive and uncompromising.
These leaks may not represent Kochavi himself who is said to have worked seamlessly and hand-in-hand with Cohen in communicating Israeli positions to CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie during the top US general’s recent visit.
Moreover, however Kochavi’s speech played in the media, his positions were well-known by all top Israeli officials from the last two years of meetings on Iran.
The IDF chief has no interest in intervening regarding who the prime minister’s messenger is to the US, and is far more concerned about sending a deterrent message directly to the ayatollahs.
In terms of Cohen’s connection to current Biden administration officials, it could be viewed as a mixed bag.
On one hand, he was Netanyahu’s national security adviser during the latter part of the Obama administration when the two sides were constantly knocking heads. The fall out from that period could continue to create distrust even now.
On the other hand, the general view is that Biden administration officials view Cohen as professional, experienced and talented – and besides promoting Netanyahu’s policies – apolitical.
On Friday, Walla! News reported that National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat held a discussion on Iran with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
This raised the question of whether Ben-Shabbat is displacing Cohen as the Iran project manager, possibly following tensions, either with the Biden administration or the IDF.
Some of the leakers who were unhappy with this attacked Ben-Shabbat’s lower proficiency in English compared with Cohen’s as well as his alleged lack of familiarity with America – even though he has been working with the US for the last four years.
The Post has learned that both Cohen and Ben-Shabbat were equally concerned about the changes in US policy on Iran going into the November 2020 US presidential elections.
Sources with knowledge of Ben-Shabbat’s conversations with Sullivan have indicated that no official project manager has been publicly announced and left it to commentators to decide whether this is anything more than two NSC chiefs in two allied countries having a standard meeting.
This would however not be the first rivalry between Cohen and Ben-Shabbat, the most powerful security officials close to Netanyahu.
As Israel cut normalization deals in late 2020 with Sudan and Morocco, there was a credit battle whether Cohen or Ben-Shabbat was responsible for the success.
There is no question that Ben-Shabbat and his aide known only as “Maoz” (since he is on loan from the Shin Bet) did a lot of the hard work nailing the deal down.
Cohen’s view was he had managed the project for years, was present at a key February 2020 meeting between Netanyahu and the leader of Sudan and continued to parachute into the picture to move things forward.
From Cohen’s standpoint, he was solely responsible for the normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain and was still the key player in the deals with Sudan and Morocco, but merely subcontracted certain aspects when it became necessary to juggle other developments.
During the Trump administration, the two also ran parallel but separate tracks with the Trump administration to work on Iran. Ben-Shabbat worked with whoever was the NSC chief at the time while Cohen worked with Mike Pompeo not only when he was head of the CIA, but even once he became secretary of state. This went beyond the Mossad chief’s typical portfolio.
In the end, it is possible that both will continue to be involved in discussing US-Iran policy going forward, and that there will not be one single project manager.
All of this is without even getting into the fact that Netanyahu cannot control Defense Minister Benny Gantz or Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in their dialogues with their American counterparts.
And then there is one more option: Netanyahu might be waiting to first get a better idea what is being worked on in Washington and only once he has a sense of the strategy will he appoint an official emissary.