Yossi Langotsky will celebrate his 88th birthday next January. But two weeks ago, when he came to TheMarker’s podcast studio, it was clear that his long-term perspective hasn’t dampened his style. There are at least two issues that still enrage him.
A so-called “government of change” came into being last month, and anyone who participated in the huge campaign to oust Benjamin Netanyahu is enjoying the feeling that the arrogance, hegemony, toxicity and incitement are gradually draining out of our local political and public discourse.
However, despite some encouraging signs, it’s way too soon to say that this will indeed be a government of genuine “change” – one focused on improving the life of the country’s citizens, whose stewards will be model leaders, decision makers and managers, who will put the public interest before their personal interest.
Langotsky showed up in the studio to remind us that the norms and political style that Benjamin Netanyahu insinuated deep into the civil service extend far beyond the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The trigger for our conversation was the mid-June television interview of outgoing Mossad director Yossi Cohen on Ilana Dayan’s investigative TV show “Fact.”
Even by the standards of self-promotion in the era of social media and the unending craving for the spotlight and appearances in TV studios, Cohen’s performance was over the top.
The insolence, the arrogance, the debasement oozed from him, from whatever angle the camera captured him.
Cohen frequently confused himself with the Mossad; he’s relentlessly occupied with his looks and his image. He had a lot of time to prepare for Dayan’s questions about his ties with James Packer, Arnon Milchan and Rami Ungar, but his answers were ridiculous. The explanations he had for rubbing elbows with these billionaires – for using of Packer’s apartment in Tel Aviv for his personal purposes, for the money he took from Packer on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, for the donations he raised from Ungar, an Israeli shipping magnate, for the synagogue he attends – all revealed a system of values that is at best flawed if not altogether debased.
Only after Haaretz reported about the $20,000 he received from Packer at the wedding, many long years after the event, did he grasp that he needs to return the money. Asked by Dayan if he had in fact returned it, he immediately set up a smokescreen. “It’s being returned,” he said, using the present tense. Only after Dayan persisted was the outgoing Mossad chief forced to admit that he hasn’t yet given it back.
He explains his need to hobnob with the ultra-rich by insisting that this is his milieu.
Seriously? What connection does Cohen have with Packer, whose business interests are based entirely in Australia? Or with Milchan? Is Cohen a film producer? A casino and real estate tycoon?
The sum of his business experience is a big round zero. Cohen has no substantive reason to fraternize with Packer, Milchan or Ungar. No benefit accrues to the Israeli taxpayers who underwrite Cohen and the Mossad from his socializing with the billionaires. By contrast, it’s easy to see what they gained from their contacts with him: Businesspeople derive great benefit from being perceived by those around them as being close to the centers of power.
Thus, Packer, as Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz revealed in May, tried to use Cohen’s name in order to threaten a business rival. Cohen claims he didn’t know that.
And therein lies the very crux of the problem: Every senior government official, certainly the head of a secret service, is expected to know how to protect themselves from people who are liable to exploit them.
Cohen exploited the “Fact” interview to confirm halfheartedly that he would like to be a contender for the premiership one day. Will his dubious relations with billionaires hurt him? Probably not. Almost all of Israel’s prime ministers during the past 20 years, certainly Netanyahu, have been extremely fond of such people: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert abnegated themselves in the face of super-wealthy individuals, whom they constantly sought out.
The attraction to and idolization Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu felt for people who had accumulate huge fortunes unhinged their judgment, entangled them in criminal investigations, weakened them and finally caused their downfall.
The part played by billionaires in corrupting politics and policy-making in Israel is muted and repressed in public discourse, not least because the country’s five major media outlets are controlled by local and foreign billionaires – and the careers of both the most senior politicians and journalists depend on being close to the upper crust.
Langotsky, who also watched Dayan’s embarrassing interview with the Mossad chief, sought to direct our attention to another issue, no less disturbing: the quantity of information Cohen revealed about the work of the Mossad in general and about the 2018 operation to steal Iran’s military nuclear archive in particular.
Over the past decade Langotsky has become known to readers of the financial columns as the person responsible for most important energy discovery in Israel: the offshore Tamar natural gas field.
But before becoming a geologist and an entrepreneur in that field, he spent 40 years in the defense establishment, where, among other projects, he established the special-ops branch in the collection unit of Military Intelligence.
“My blood pressure shot up to 500 when I watched that program,” Langotsky told us. “What Cohen said is simply beyond belief. What’s really been happening? I would assume with almost 100 percent confidence that every Sunday the heads of the relevant organizations of our enemies sit in the offices of their intelligence agencies in Tehran, Beirut and Gaza and tell their staff: ‘Yallah, come on, let’s see the translations of the articles from Israel already.’ The intelligence material that courses through the print and visual media is worth gold to the organizations we’re fighting. I’m left speechless. We’re talking here not about a regular secret, but a secret that is the holy of holies of secrets.”
Cohen revealed the information he did in his “Fact” interview for one purpose only: self-aggrandizement.
Langotsky has no doubt that Cohen revealed the information he did on “Fact” for one purpose only: self-aggrandizement. “The prattling is a product of an attempt by senior figures – not just regular senior officials, but the most senior there are – to enhance their public status and image. There’s no question about it, and it’s absolutely awful.”
In the course of the show, Dayan repeated the claim that Cohen’s tenure had been a huge success. Maybe.
But neither the public nor journalists have any ability to make a truly accurate evaluation of the quality of the work of our secret services.
The Mossad controls all the information about its activities, the media are dependent on its top people for details. The information lacunae in this area between the media and the Mossad are immense.
Even the political establishment has only partial information about the organization. What is known is that its budget was doubled in the past decade.
Is the organization efficient? Effective? How are its operations chosen? Do the operations that ostensibly succeed achieve long-term strategic goals? Policy goals? Security goals? Did the documents that were brought from Iran, which were apparently already very old when they were stolen, help stop that country’s nuclear project, or did they add up mainly to a PR presentation? No one really knows.
But the operations Cohen spearheaded didn’t always enjoy confidentiality.
Before being appointed Mossad chief, apparently at Milchan’s recommendation and thanks to Cohen’s ties to the former prime minister’s wife, Cohen headed the National Security Council.
His preening on “Fact” wasn’t the first time Langotsky encountered him.
Yossi Langotsky was one of the few public figures in Israel who assailed the “gas framework” – the series of exemptions and benefits Netanyahu arranged, beginning in 2015, for the gas-drilling franchisees with the aid of the energy and finance ministries.
When Netanyahu ran into opposition when he attempted to bypass Prof. David Gilo, commissioner of the Antitrust Authority (today the Competition Authority), which in the past had enjoyed autonomy, he decided to invoke a clause to the effect that in the event that national security is at stake, the commissioner’s decisions can be ignored.
To do that Netanyahu needed an opinion stating that the regulatory regime of the anticipated gas production he was supporting was essential to protect state security.
Cohen was enlisted for the task then, as NSC chief. He came up with an odd opinion, claiming that exemption from regulation was in Israel’s interests from both the security and diplomatic perspectives.
Langotsky: “My first and only acquaintance with Yossi Cohen was when they were dealing with the gas framework, and Bibi pulled a rabbit out of the hat: the notion that supplying gas to Egypt would improve our relations big-time. Cohen concocted a document for Netanyahu confirming all that. I wrote up a document , which is in the Knesset Record, in which I say: This is a fairy tale, nonsense. Egypt doesn’t need gas from us, you made that up. How will it improve our relations with Egypt if they don’t have a need for this gas?”
“A few years have gone by since then,” he continues, “and it turned out, of course, that I was right: The Egyptians can indeed sell us gas, as much as they want and for years into the future – so what is this story all about? When I read out my comments in the Economic Affairs Committee, Cohen sat there, smiling, and I said, ‘Yossi, for heaven’s sake, how could you submit something like that? I’m sorry I have to say this to you.’ So he smiled, he was generous, he said – ‘No, no, say whatever you think.’ But then I said to myself that if this guy is capable of producing a document like this, we have a problem.”
The PR show in the “Fact” studio marked the end of Cohen’s term. We can only hope that under the new government, Israel’s security establishment will cease to serve as a political tool in the hands of the prime minister. But Netanyahu and Cohen have saddled that government with a problem: an energy sector whose regulation serves the interests of the gas companies.
The former energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, is not a “fashion model” – as people referred to Cohen – but he outdoes him in self-promotion. A year ago he published a book, “The Battle over the Gas,” the first half of which is grounded in reality and whose second half belongs to the genre of fantasy. In recent years we have repeatedly pointed out Steinitz’s distortions and manipulations – but Langotsky has a sharper way of describing him: “He’s even more of a babbler and a delusional person, and it’s a shame and disgrace that he was a minister in Israel. I am judging him solely in terms of my professional niche, and I know whereof I speak.
“Let me give you one example. We are talking about a subject called ‘how much gas we have.’ Two government bodies – the Zemach committee and afterward the Adiri committee – decided, overall, that about half the gas reserves in the country should be reserved for Israel and half would be available for export. There’s a question of strategy in this context: Who are the clever folks who know what Israel’s geopolitical situation will be in another 20 years, and are already today making decisions of such weighty significance? I think no one knows what they’re doing, it’s all just prophesying.
“In May 2015 John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, came to Israel, met with Bibi, and said, ‘Don’t export gas. Israel is a small, isolated country. There’s concern that in another 20 years you’ll be in a situation where you won’t be able to obtain oil in the amounts you want. You had a miracle, you have gas, keep the gas, ensure that you will have energy for 50 years. If later on you discover more gas beyond the present finds, great, export it. But not before that.’”
“And then along comes Mr. Steinitz, Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz, and says the following: ‘In Israeli waters there are four more Tamar fields and two more Leviathans [the name of another gas field].’ Nonsense of the highest order. A crude lie – there is no such thing. ‘And for that reason [Steinitz said], we can go ahead and export. What are you worried about? It’s true that we’ve estimated that we only have enough gas left for 20 years, but I tell you based on an opinion I received that lots more gas will be discovered.’ And that’s a lie!”
Steinitz, Langotsky claims, distorted data from a French survey that stated that the Levant Basin (i.e., the eastern part of the Mediterranean) has reserves of 2,100 billion cubic meters of gas. The only trouble is that the Levant Basin includes, besides the Israeli economic zone (the area in which the state may engage in business-related activity), vast areas constituting the economic zones of Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Egypt: “And it’s not just that he was confused that one time. No, he kept on saying that all along the way. When he said he would bring in other companies, I told him, ‘Listen, I have experience internationally – companies won’t come here, there’s no chance, none. They will check the data and tell you that there is no reason to come.’ And that’s exactly what happened. The mountain turned out to be a molehill.”
I asked Langotsky whether it was possible that the chain of regulators who were supposed to regulate the gas discoveries morphed in reality into lobbyists for the monopoly. His answer was unequivocal, and he had an instructive example: “I support what you say [about gas regulation]. I’ll tell you for the first time something I’ve never told anyone. My good friend, Dr. Yehezkel ‘Charlie’ Druckman, who died two years ago, was commissioner of oil affairs at the Energy Ministry. Everything I’m saying here about the need to prevent the export of gas – he thought the same thing. I told him, ‘You’re in charge, why don’t you shout it out?’ He said, ‘If I shout, I won’t make it to retirement.’ I am being precise in my words. There are no doubts, and I said and wrote about this a number of times: Tycoons in different companies have key office-holders in the Israeli economy wrapped around their little fingers. There’s no two ways about that.”
So far, the new government’s record in terms of professional appointments is mixed. Along with the removal of machers and lackies in the service of Netanyahu and Likud from key posts, in favor of professional experts, there have also been a series of decisions that fit in amazingly well with the corrupt Israeli tradition. The expected appointment of Danny Naveh, a confidant of Nochi Dankner and Avigdor Lieberman, to the superfluous position of president of the Israel Bonds organization, shows that the appetite of the government of “change” to pad positions for cronies at the taxpayer’s expense is no less hearty than that of Netanyahu and his chorus.
The true test of the new government will be in the release of regulation and legislation from the grip of interest groups like the gas monopoly.
Throughout the process in which Netanyahu subordinated energy policy to the interests of the gas barons, what stood out was the silence of most of the politicians in the opposition. Now they’re in power.
Within a few months, it will become clear whether they are capable of effecting change and want to effect it – even if that involves confrontations with people and organizations who don’t come in the colors of certain political parties but in just one color: the color of money.
Source: Guy Rolnik – HAARETZ