Uncovering Israel's not-so-secret weapon in the fight against COVID-19: The spies of Mossad

Mossad officers, primarily associated with covert operations abroad in the name of protecting Israel, are not normally in the business of public health

The New York Times April 13, 2020 11:50:41 IST
Uncovering Israel's not-so-secret weapon in the fight against COVID-19: The spies of Mossad

Tel Aviv: When Israel’s health minister was found to be infected with the coronavirus early this month, all high-level officials in close contact with him were quarantined, including one who stood out: the director of the Mossad, the storied Israeli spy service.

Mossad officers, primarily associated with covert operations abroad in the name of protecting Israel, are not normally in the business of public health. So Israelis were immediately intrigued.

Why would the Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, a widely respected figure in the country, have even been in the same room as the health minister, Yaakov Litzman?

Cohen’s powerful agency, it turns out, has been deeply involved in Israel’s fight against the virus, and has been one of the country’s most valuable assets in acquiring medical equipment and manufacturing technology abroad, according to Israeli medical and security officials.

As countries around the world compete ferociously for limited supplies during the pandemic, they are turning to any help available, and flexing their muscles unapologetically.

And with the Mossad having determined that Iran — struggling with its own coronavirus crisis — no longer represents an immediate security threat, the agency could afford to immerse itself in the health emergency, according to multiple people knowledgeable about its operations.

Initial predictions for the toll of the virus in Israel were dire, though so far they have proved too pessimistic. With nearly 11,000 cases of the virus now confirmed and 103 deaths, Israel does not rank among the hardest-hit countries in the world.

“The peak expansion rate has been behind us for about two weeks now, and will probably wane almost completely within two weeks,” said an article published on Sunday by Professor Isaac Ben Israel of Tel Aviv University.

But in early February, officials at Sheba Medical Centre, Israel’s biggest hospital, realised that they needed more ventilators and other gear. And around that time, Professor Yitshak Kreiss, the director general of the hospital, met with Cohen, the Mossad chief, at a private event involving a mutual friend — not unusual in a small country where senior figures often move in the same social circles.

Uncovering Israels notsosecret weapon in the fight against COVID19 The spies of Mossad

File image of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. AP

By then, Cohen had already begun to assess how the Mossad could help the Israeli health system. Kreiss said he enumerated the most urgent equipment needs to Cohen, who obtained further lists from the Health Ministry, and the Mossad began activating its international network to find the items needed.

In early March, a command and control centre was set up to handle the distribution of medical gear across the country, with Cohen at its head and headquartered at Sheba. There were representatives from the Mossad, the Ministry of Defence purchasing division, and the military intelligence’s highly-secretive Unit 81, which deals with the development of advanced espionage equipment.

Kreiss, a former brigadier general in the army and a former surgeon general for the military, said the Mossad had been pivotal in helping his institution secure vital medical equipment and expertise from abroad.

“It is only in Israel that the Sheba Hospital could have enlisted the help of the Mossad,” he said in an interview. “Can you imagine Mount Sinai Hospital going to the CIA for help?” he added, referring to the New York medical centre.

Kreiss declined to say precisely how Mossad officers had helped the Israeli medical establishment or where the imported equipment came from. But according to six current or former Israeli officials with knowledge of the Mossad’s operations, the agency used international contacts to avert shortages that might have overwhelmed Israel’s health system.

The six people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Mossad’s activities are classified, said the spy agency’s contacts had proved invaluable in enabling Israel to acquire ventilators and testing material that Litzman’s Health Ministry had been unable to secure. Despite those efforts, however, there is still a lack of testing capacity in Israel.

These people would not confirm non-Israeli media reports that some of the items were acquired from neighbouring Arab nations with no official diplomatic relations with Israel.

But at least one senior Mossad official acknowledged in an interview with Ilana Dayan, host of Uvda, or Fact, Israel’s Channel 12 TV newsmagazine, that in some instances, the agency had acquired items that other countries had already ordered.

By the end of the first week of April, the people with knowledge of the operations said, Cohen was confident that Mossad operatives had ensured Israel would possess enough ventilators to cope with the worst forecasts.

If Litzman, whose initially cavalier attitude toward the virus has been sharply criticised, symbolises for some the shortcomings of the government’s response, for many Israelis the Mossad represents the opposite. Word of its assistance in fighting the pandemic has bolstered the Mossad’s image as among the country’s most admired government institutions.

There was no time to waste, Kreiss recalled, praising what he described as the single-mindedness of purpose shown by Mossad agents. “Part of their ethos is to execute their task at any price,” he said.

That ethos has helped build Mossad’s reputation.

It is best known for the capture of the Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann in 1960, its lethal response after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the 2018 theft of secret nuclear records from Iran, which Israelis regard as their most dangerous adversary.

The agency has also had some high-profile failures, among them the botched assassination attempt in 1997 on Khaled Meshal, a senior figure in Hamas.

To some extent, the Mossad’s intervention in the pandemic is an acute embarrassment for officials of the Health Ministry, who ordinarily speak freely to the media but declined to comment on any aspect of the spy service’s role.

That the country’s health system had to enlist Mossad was evidence that it had not readied itself to respond to the type of threat represented by the coronavirus, according to a high-ranking figure in the Israeli health system, who requested anonymity because he was criticising the ministry’s directorate.

The first shipment acquired abroad by the Mossad arrived in Israel on a special flight on 19 March: A hundred thousand coronavirus testing kits, said an official from the prime minister’s office.

Subsequent shipments included more testing kits, 1.5 million surgical masks, tens of thousands of N-95 masks, protective overalls for first-aid crews, protective goggles and a range of medications, according to a high-ranking official knowledgeable about the Mossad operation.

The Mossad also helped obtain technology from outside Israel that have enabled many Israeli laboratories to conduct coronavirus tests. Mossad operatives also secured the necessary know-how to produce ventilators in Israel.

Using technological expertise brought in by the Mossad, production lines that can produce 25 million protective masks a month are gradually being set up, a high-ranking security official said.

According to one senior Israeli official, the Mossad knew it had to act urgently, with the demand for such equipment expected to grow and with the understanding that countries would eventually refuse to export essential medical products.

The Mossad’s efforts were easier in non-democratic countries where intelligence agencies have more influence with the rulers, this official said. The efforts were based on prior familiarity and mutual trust between the Mossad and those agencies.

In some instances, the official said, Cohen personally contacted his counterparts. Such contacts were often enough to expedite purchase of the goods. In other cases, the official said, Cohen spoke directly to the rulers of particular countries, which he declined to identify.

As other countries began to hunt for the same gear, competition intensified, and the battle was not always waged fairly. While none of the people with knowledge of the Mossad’s operations explicitly acknowledged that the agency may have played dirty, they did not rule it out.

One recipient of the Mossad’s imports said some had come from China, where Israel’s defence ministry also helped secure medical equipment through a network usually used to buy weapons.

The Mossad has invested heavily over the past decade in developing relations with States in West Asia and the rest of Asia that remain hostile to Israel, at least officially.

There have been a number of reports that Cohen has met frequently with the rulers and spy bosses of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. In 2018, Cohen set up an unusual public meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who died in January.

Not all the Mossad coronavirus operations were successful.

One of the people knowledgeable about the failures said Mossad emissaries had been outmanoeuvered at least once in Germany, where government couriers seized goods the Israelis were about to ship home from a factory. Another time, a load of sanitiser in India was delayed by customs officers and the Mossad abandoned the shipment.

Nevertheless, the Mossad will almost certainly be remembered for coming to the country’s rescue in an unusual battle against an invisible enemy.

Ronen Bergman c.2020 The New York Times Company

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