Secret Services and Democracy: The case of Israel

Why Mossad’s Yossi Cohen, shadow warrior against Iran, is PM’s chosen successor

Spy chief widely seen behind killing of Iran’s nuclear weapons chief is a trusted Netanyahu loyalist, and his preferred choice to steer Israel through the coming regional chaos

2 December 2020
photo: Haim Zach/GPO

In August 2019, people close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard him utter a startling sentence.

“There are two people I consider fit to lead Israel — Yossi Cohen and Ron Dermer,” he was quoted by unnamed associates as saying, referring to the head of the Mossad and to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, respectively.

It was uncharacteristic of Netanyahu to speculate about his replacement, or indeed about anything that might suggest an end to his tenure as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. That fact alone led some to interpret the leaked comment, which was never denied, as a calculated signal to Likud MKs and leadership hopefuls that Netanyahu doesn’t see his politician-colleagues as his equals and plans to throw his support behind an outside loyalist when the time comes.

But others took the comment at face value, and for good reason. Dermer and Cohen are carefully chosen and crisis-tested loyalists who oversee for Netanyahu the two central pillars of his policy – and in his mind, his legacy: The complicated but vital relationship with the US, and the bitter, unrelenting campaign against the Iranian regime.

More than their predecessors, and likely more than their successors, both men are kings of their policy domain, enjoying the prime minister’s trust and able to drive daring policy moves even in uncharted, controversial waters.

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Dermer famously orchestrated Netanyahu’s 2015 address to Congress to lambast the Iran nuclear deal, a move taken despite angry resistance from the Obama White House. He was also the key figure in the close relationship Netanyahu would later develop with the Trump White House