December 14, 2015 - Rivlin, Yossi Cohen, the Mossad, and Iran

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This week, Alpher discusses who is the real Reuven Rivlin and how much influence does he wield back home in Jerusalem; does Yossi Cohen's appointment as new head of the Mossad tell us something about the future direction of Israel’s overall security strategy; what will be Cohen’s primary intelligence collection and operational priorities in the Mossad in the years ahead; how can one explain Tehran removing most of its Revolutionary Guards Quds forces from the Syrian battlefield and sending them home to Iran.

Q. President Reuven Rivlin of Israel was warmly welcomed last week by US President Barack Obama. Rivlin, a Likud right-winger, came across as a genuine liberal and a champion of Palestinian rights. The contrast with Obama-Netanyahu meetings could not have been more stark. So who is the real Reuven Rivlin and how much influence does he wield back home in Jerusalem?

A. Here is how I describe Rivlin in my forthcoming book (next April), “No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine”:

The good neighbor. Reuven Rivlin, president of the state of Israel since 2014, is a fluent Arabic speaker whose family immigrated to Palestine nearly two hundred years ago and who spent his early years in pre-1948 Jerusalem, with its mix of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. He is the most senior political figure to have broached the idea of annexing the West Bank and awarding its Arab residents Israeli citizenship. “I prefer that Palestinians be citizens of this state to dividing the land,” he has stated, emphasizing that the Land of Israel/Palestine cannot be partitioned because “Jews and Arabs have lived side by side since the dawn of Zionism.” Like [former Likud foreign and defense minister Moshe] Arens, Rivlin too quotes Jabotinsky about an Arab vice president. Ostensibly, both are adherents of the nineteenth-century liberal values of egalitarianism that originally characterized the Likud but, with few exceptions, no longer do.

But does Rivlin really believe in making Palestinians totally equal Israeli citizens, thereby rendering Israel a state of all its citizens or a binational state? Not quite: he mentions the possibility of “joint sovereignty in Judea and Samaria” under a Jewish state or, alternatively, a vague regime of two parliaments, Jewish and Arab, in a West Bank co-dominion. Then too, Rivlin also refers on occasion to a two-state solution, and he acknowledges that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is a legitimate partner for negotiation. Since taking over the presidency in mid-2014, Rivlin has made a major effort to respect the needs and traditions of Israel’s Palestinian Arab population and to advocate conciliation and a pluralistic approach to Israeli life, even when this advocacy brings him into conflict with his original right-wing base. In 2015 he was quoted as stating, “We the children of Abraham must live in the understanding that we are not condemned to live together but rather were meant to live together.” He has strongly condemned extremist Jewish right-wing activity in the West Bank. He is undoubtedly the most flexible and creative of the one-state proponents.

In his public remarks in the US, and in a Washington Post op-ed that coincided with his first US visit, Rivlin discussed some sort of vague two-state confederation or a united state in which Israelis and Palestinians “make decisions together”. Back home in Israel, he usually back-pedals when confronted by the claim that a single state would constitute the end of Jewish, democratic and Zionist Israel. Put simply, squaring the circle of a democratic, pluralistic and inclusive state that remains the Zionist homeland is not Rivlin’s strong suit.

Where he is strong, and was in Washington and New York, is in arguing that in any case an end-of-conflict solution is not a near-term possibility and that in the meantime Israel has to do far more to ensure equal rights for Arabs: inside Israel, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. “Does anyone think that dealing with the sewage, roads, schools and medical centers of eastern Jerusalem can or should wait until the end of the conflict?” he asked in the Washington Post.

At a time when Netanyahu shrilly equates Palestinian knife attacks with Islamic State beheadings, Naftali Bennet (Jewish Home) calls on the IDF to invade the West Bank, and both insist on ignoring not only Obama’s and John Kerry’s desperate warnings regarding Israel’s future but even IDF Intelligence admonitions that Palestinian attacks derive far more from socio-economic frustration than from Islamist ideology--Rivlin undoubtedly comes across as a breath of fresh air. But make no mistake about his basic beliefs: Israel and the Jewish people cannot forsake the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

 

Q. This brings us to the appointment last week, with great fan-fair, of Yossi Cohen as new head of the Mossad. Cohen’s religious, right-wing background is much like that of the current head of the Shin Bet and the new head of the Israel Police. Does this tell us something about the future direction of Israel’s overall security strategy?

A. I doubt it. There are no blatant indications that the objectivity of the security establishment is in jeopardy in the near term. Bear in mind that, since the 1973 Yom Kippur War intelligence surprise, assessment has been pluralized and the lower ranks are encouraged to voice dissenting opinions if they disagree with the head of the Mossad or of military intelligence.

Still, there are important background factors at work here.

First, we have to recognize that the more secure PM Netanyahu feels in his leadership of the country, the more inclined he is to appoint security officials with whose background he feels comfortable. Cohen, in particular, is from the “fighting family” (his parents, like Netanyahu’s family, were involved in the pre-state right-wing underground movements Lehi and Irgun). In the past two years he served as the prime minister’s national security adviser and managed throughout to remain in Netanyahu’s confidence--not an easy task, as a long line of advisers who resigned can testify.

Second, in recent years and particularly in the decade since the Gaza withdrawal that removed some 8,000 National Orthodox Jews from their settlements in the Strip, the National Orthodox movement has made a conscious effort to encourage its youth to enter long-term service in the IDF, the Shin Bet internal security service and even the Mossad (where they, like Yossi Cohen, frequently have to remove their kippot head gear in order to blend in during missions abroad). In parallel, the National Orthodox have augmented their political representation in the Likud and in governing coalitions, and are pushing for more Jewish religious “values” to be inculcated in high schools and the army, sometimes at the expense of democratic values. They want more influence and are getting it. In many ways, they are Israel’s “new elite”, a development that goes a long way toward explaining Israeli attitudes regarding settlements and the Palestinians.

But both of these dynamics can generally be defined as democratic developments within a pluralist culture. Sociologists and political scientists tell us these are a natural part of a young country’s political evolution. Moreover, by and large the religious officers and officials in Israel’s security establishment respect the democratic system, follow the directives of the political powers-that-be and are not afraid to “speak truth to power” when security developments and assessments position them at odds with the views of their political superiors. Religious senior Shin Bet officials, some themselves settlers, have done as much as the non-religious to find and prosecute marauding “price tag” arsonists and murderers from the “illegal” outposts. (Part of the problem is that their hands are tied by a political echelon that refuses to classify the wayward settlers as “terrorists” or do anything about the outposts but expand them.)

We will see more and more religious Israelis in senior security positions in the years ahead. Currently, there are no religious major generals in the IDF; a few years ago there were three, and many religious colonels and brigadiers will undoubtedly be promoted in the years ahead. The real problems will arise only if and when religious security officials undertake to subordinate their security missions in favor of the edicts of extremist rabbis whose ideology favors “Jewish” over “democratic”, and/or when the political echelon that gives the orders downgrades the “democratic” element.

Meanwhile, we can expect Yossi Cohen to be a good head of Mossad. One of the items in his operational CV that I like is his background in “humint”, running agents. At a time when cyber and technical operations are increasingly dominating Israeli (and American) intelligence, this is a plus. As for the “reality TV” atmosphere in which Netanyahu chose last week to declare Cohen’s appointment, creating nail-biter suspense regarding which of three candidates he would select, we can only assume that a prime ministerial PR adviser decided that the Mossad’s huge media popularity these days dictated a tactic that would enhance Netanyahu’s own popularity. And we can hope that this won’t rub off on the Mossad itself, which needs near-absolute secrecy to operate.

 

Q. What in your view will be Cohen’s primary intelligence collection and operational priorities in the Mossad in the years ahead?

A. First, combating both the Sunni (IS, Qaeda, Hamas) and the Shiite (Iran, Hezbollah) varieties of Islamic extremism that are located primarily but not exclusively to Israel’s north, in Syria and Lebanon but which may operate against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad as well. Second, keeping tabs on Iran’s nuclear program. Third, expanding clandestine ties with those Sunni Arab states that share Israel’s threat perceptions regarding militant Islam--despite the almost certain absence of progress toward a Palestinian solution. And third, maintaining Israel’s intelligence ties with western and other countries despite disagreements regarding Iran and the Palestinian issue.

 

Q. Apropos the Iranian threat, reliable reports from recent days tell us that Tehran is removing most of its Revolutionary Guards Quds forces from the Syrian battlefield and sending them home to Iran. This extraordinary development can only be welcome news to Israel, which sees the Iranian presence in Syria as a major potential threat. How do you explain it?

A. Without direct access to the halls of power in Tehran, I can only offer a list of conjectures, one or more of which could turn out to be true.

The Quds forces have recently suffered heavy losses among their most senior officer ranks at the hands of Sunni extremists. The resultant demoralization could be one explanation. Then too, now that the Russians are intervening on the side of Syrian President Assad, the Damascus regime appears to be more secure, thereby rendering the Iranian military presence less vital, particularly insofar as a “Shiite foreign legion” of volunteers from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan can take over in Syria alongside Hezbollah forces from Lebanon. Moreover, public disagreements between Iran and the Russians regarding the end goal of the war in Lebanon could have influenced the Iranian decision: Russia wants to stabilize Syria as an Arab ally, whereas Iran wants an Alawite-Shiite ally.

There might also be public pressure from back home: Iranian losses in Syria and Iraq are published in death notices in the Iranian press, leading conceivably to inconvenient queries by some senior Iranian officials whose ear is attuned to public grumbling, especially with elections looming in Iran. Finally, is it conceivable that Iran wants to limit its presence in Syria at this critical point in time--with a huge economic payoff from the recent nuclear deal in the offing--in order to avoid possible escalatory confrontation on the ground with Israel that could complicate its international relations?

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