Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad has appointed a new chief to succeed Yossi Cohen, well-known as a veteran recruiter of the agency’s spies, in the shape of its former deputy director David Barnea.
Barnea, 56, has been designated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” among other tasks. Barnea joined Mossad in 1996, serving as a case officer. From 2013 until his appointment in 2019 to the number two post, he commanded its Tzomet division.
The appointment of Barnea is seen as a new chapter in the agency’s history and is expected to see it continue its campaigns against Iran and the Palestinian group Hamas, deemed by the US as a terrorist group.
Last year’s killing of the head of Iran’s nuclear programme Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was attributed to the agency. Israel was also blamed for the recent attack on the underground Iranian Natanz nuclear facility.
Cohen, stepping down after more than five years at the helm, and Netanyahu stressed that Iran would be a target of the agency’s actions after a series of setbacks to the country’s nuclear programme thought to have been directed by Israel.
Cohen highlighted the need to “step up” Israel’s activities against Iran in order to make it realise that “crossing the lines will cost it immense damage.” Netanyahu said in a speech at Barnea’s nomination that preventing Iran from having nuclear arms was “the paramount mission.”
“If Israel feels it has backing from the US, Barnea’s preference would be to continue with hard-hitting operations, as opposed to merely gathering intelligence,” said Yonah Bob, an intelligence analyst who covers Mossad.
However, as “the Biden administration is expected soon to cut a new deal with Iran and presuming Tehran remains in compliance, this will reduce the space for more aggressive operations,” Bob told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Netanyahu may be facing his final days in office, as Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid is close to establishing a coalition that would end his 12-year reign with the backing of far-right party leader Naftali Bennett.
However, if a new Lapid-Bennett government takes power, its Iran policy will “almost certainly be the same as Netanyahu’s in an operational sense where Mossad is involved,” Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Weekly.
Netanyahu and Cohen frequently took pride in Israel’s operations against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including a raid on Tehran’s secret nuclear archives that assisted the former US Trump administration to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
The operation, carried out in January 2018, still has repercussions today.
One of the most striking operations that involved Mossad was the killing of Qassem Al-Suleimani, the military commander who headed Iran’s Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
In an interview with the Israeli Mishpacha magazine a couple of months before Al-Suleimani’s death, Cohen said the potential Israeli assassination of the Iranian leader was “not impossible.”
Many Mossad operations against Iran have targeted nuclear scientists and facilities, an approach that may continue under Barnea, who has promised to continue his predecessor’s agenda on Tehran.
This may also include its agenda on the Palestinian group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. In Israel’s recent war on Gaza, more than 248 Palestinians were killed, along with 13 Israelis. Hamas fired hundreds of rockets against targets in Israel in May in response to Israel’s push to evict Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in Occupied East Jerusalem.
Mossad has long targeted Hamas for its operations, and Israel has fought three wars against Gaza since 2009, the last being last month’s bruising 11-day war that caused destruction in the Gaza Strip and brought life in much of Israel to a standstill.
Barnea’s appointment at the head of Mossad will not bring about major changes in the Israeli strategy against Hamas or Iran, said Zilber.
“The politicians dictate policy, not the Mossad chief. The choice of Barnea, who was Cohen’s deputy, signals continuity in policy, especially regarding Iran,” he said.
“The Hamas/Gaza file is a bit more difficult to predict – and even Netanyahu is now signalling a shift in policy after the recent war – but the Palestinian file is not the most important issue that Mossad handles,” he added.
While the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) intelligence services and the Shin Bet intelligence agency have primary responsibility for Gaza, “Mossad is involved, but usually only in a secondary capacity in helping to track and prevent weapons smuggling,” Bob said.
The agency has been in contact with Qatari officials in order to encourage them to continue transferring financial aid to Gaza that started in 2018. It has been used to pay the salaries of civil servants and as direct financial assistance to tens of thousands of impoverished families in Gaza.
It was agreed by Israel in exchange for Hamas ensuring calm and as part of efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire.
Mossad’s role in facilitating possible further funding for Hamas from Qatar remains unknown. “The picture is very unclear and relates to new global efforts to fundraise for the reconstruction in Gaza,” Bob said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly