As anyone reading this blog knows, what goes on inside the belly of the beast that is the Israeli intelligence apparatus is about as opaque as it can be. It’s a bit like watching the smoke from the Vatican fireplace to find out when a new pope is named. All you can do is sit and wait and wonder what’s going on inside.
This held true with the naming of the current director, Yoram Cohen. Cohen was actually expecting to retire from the Shin Bet. He’d spent a sabbatical as a fellow at the Aipac-founded Washington Institute for Near East Peace. His next step was to move into private life.
But a funny thing happened. Yuval Diskin’s choice for the job he was vacating, Yitzhak Ilan, rubbed Sara Netanyahu the wrong way (it doesn’t take much). As a result, Bibi had to become a bit of a quick-change artist. Cohen, who’d been ready to fade off into retirement, became the favored candidate. Instead, it was Ilan who left the stage without the prize he’d expected.
Though I’m sure Cohen was grateful to get the job, he did not like the circus that led up to it. He was especially influenced by a strong column that Alex Fishman, Yediot’s security correspondent, wrote criticizing the machinations and secrecy that accompanied his (Cohen’s) appointment. Even the cabinet had no say in the appointment and was forced to serve as Bibi’s rubber stamp. Here is what Fishman wrote:
How did Netanyahu choose Yoram Cohen for Shin Bet chief? The matter is complicated. When you’re speaking of the appointment of a new IDF chief of staff the public can follow the debate about the competitors [for the job] in one way or another and even ask questions. But in the cases of the Shin Bet and Mossad, none of them is known [to the public]. When there is no transparency regarding the considerations [for getting the job], no clear method, no criteria, there is much gossip.
…Netanyahu announced Cohen’s appointment in public in a live broadcast. In doing so, he side-stepped his own cabinet and turned it into a rubber-stamp. In truth, the prime minister doesn’t appoint the Shin Bet chief just as the defense minister doesn’t appoint the chief of staff. That is the role of the cabinet: to listen and advise, to deliberate, to consider options, form a particular point of view and then choose.
And that’s precisely what didn’t happen. As a result, he’s trying to professionalize the process to the extent he can. That’s why he’s engineered a major reshuffling (Hebrew) of all the top portfolios of the agency. This will allow him to make his mark on it and have confidence he has the right personnel in place to do the job as he wants it done.
But the main result is that there are now two top deputies who will compete for Cohen’s job when he retires after his six-year term expires. This, Cohen hopes, will eliminate the type of circus that brought him to the top job. It will enable the prime minister to choose between two candidates in just the way a major corporation elevates a few key subordinates to major positions, allowing them to rise or fall based on how they perform in their jobs. The presumption is that the candidate who’s performed best will be chosen to be the chief.
Israelis do not know who these two deputies are. But thanks to a highly-placed Israeli source, you will. They are Roni Alsheikh and Nadav Argaman. The former is currently the chief of Shin Bet headquarters (rosh agaf mateh). Something akin to chief of staff. He is Orthodox and of Yemenite ethnicity. His nickname is “The Fox.”
Alsheikh joined Shabak in the late 1980s as an interrogator. If he gets the top job he’ll be the first to rise through the ranks as an interrogator – most previous directors ran Palestinian spies in the field. Though he’s known to have used torture in cases of alleged “ticking bombs“, he’s not considered one of the goons who use brute force to extract confessions from detainees. Instead, he mostly used his wits during interrogations, and he believes it’s better being (as Talmud Yerushalmi says) “the head of the foxes than the tail of the lions” (hence his nickname).
Nadav Argaman’s nickname is “The Consigliere” (note the deliberate echoing of the Mafia). He got this name because his diplomatic cover was the “counselor” in Israel’s UN mission. I wrote about him when Channel 10 blew his cover a few months ago:
Haaretz described his U.S. role as “chief of the North America security center.” He’s also in his 50s and served in the élite Sayeret Matkal (Special Forces commandos). He spent his entire Shabak career in “operations,” which includes apprehending terrorists. He has had relatively little experience with interrogations, “running” agents, and counter-terror.
About the only other thing we know about him is how he likes his coffee: strong, black, one sugar.
I hate to go on and on like a broken record about matters like this, but Israeli media should be vetting these candidates, discussing their weaknesses and strengths. As Alex Fishman implied, there should be a public debate. That’s what we do here in the U.S. After all, these candidates hold the security of the nation in their hands. But because of the Israeli cult of secrecy around these matters, the job is left to me.