The military censor has barred publication of information about former Mossad Director Yossi Cohen’s visits to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019.
New information obtained from military officials by the “Israeli” newspaper TheMarker shows that the purpose of these trips, which Cohen made on the entity’s behalf, was controversial, problematic and some would even say dubious. This information intensifies the questions around his conduct in this affair, which led to his activities being exposed.
As first reported by the American Bloomberg News, Cohen visited Congo several times in 2019 while he was still head of the Mossad. He was accompanied by billionaire Dan Gertler, who is suspected by the British authorities of paying an enormous bribe, $360 million, in exchange for mining rights in Congo. The American and Swiss authorities suspect Gertler of similar crimes.
Later, Cohen worked to get the US administration to remove the sanctions it imposed on Gertler in late 2017.
Bloomberg reported that Cohen made two visits to Congo during this period. TheMarker has also learned of a third visit. During each of these visits, Cohen met with Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi. His visits to Congo came as a surprise to Tshisekedi, who was shocked to discover that the head of a foreign intelligence agency was in his country with no official invitation or advance warning.
Sources familiar with the details of the affair said that Cohen appeared in the president’s office on his first visit with a present in hand and was granted an unplanned meeting with Tshisekedi. At this meeting, Cohen offered his assistance on various issues, such as obtaining defense technology. Several of the president’s aides were present at the meeting, as was Gertler.
The surprised president didn’t know what to make of Cohen’s visit, but at this stage he apparently voiced no suspicions of the Mossad director’s intentions.
The date of Cohen’s second visit to Congo is known: October 9, 2019. That day, Tshisekedi flew in his presidential plane from the eastern city of Goma to the capital, Kinshasa. Shortly after he took off, another plane in his entourage also took off but crashed soon afterward.
According to various reports, aboard that aircraft were the president’s driver, several employees of the president’s office and some soldiers. Nobody survived the crash, these reports said.
When he arrived in Kinshasa, the president’s aides once again discovered he had an unexpected guest – Cohen.
Cohen arrived in a private plane [it’s not clear whether or not this was Gertler’s plane] and spent a few hours at the airport before his meeting with the president, according to TheMarker’s sources. One person present at the meeting said that when Cohen and Tshisekedi met later that day, Cohen asked the president whether it would bother him if the Mossad chief advised former President Joseph Kabila on an issue of interest to the “Israeli” entity. Tshisekedi, who by this point knew that Cohen had also met with Kabila during his previous visit, agreed.
Kabila, who is considered close to Gertler [and whom international investigators suspect of taking bribes from him], had a complicated political relationship with Tshisekedi at that time: they were partners, but also rivals.
Tshisekedi was elected only in early 2019, and his new government relied on a coalition with Kabila’s party. But Kabila continued to wield great political power, which posed a threat to Tshisekedi – the first president to take office after roughly a quarter century in which Congo was ruled by either Kabila or his father, Laurent Kabila.
After Cohen’s second meeting with Tshisekedi, and because of his connection to Kabila, the president’s staff became suspicious of the Mossad chief’s motives. Some of Tshisekedi’s aides even voiced fears that Cohen was helping Kabila acquire arms for a coup attempt.
A few weeks later, Cohen made his third trip to Congo, this time at the head of a larger delegation. Once again, he held an unscheduled meeting with Tshisekedi and some of the president’s staff at Tshisekedi’s Kinshasa office.
“Cohen once again spoke in vague slogans about cooperation between the countries,” one source said. “But Tshisekedi was out of patience.”
At one point, Tshisekedi asked his staff to leave the room so he could be alone with Cohen. At the end of their brief conversation, Cohen was told to go directly to the airport, escorted by local security forces, and leave the country and not return. The Mossad chief was thus effectively deported – an unprecedented and humiliating step – following a series of unscheduled meetings.
The purpose of Cohen’s trips with Gertler to the central African country remain a mystery to this day. But what has previously been reported is that after these events, Cohen and the entity’s ambassador in Washington at the time, Ron Dermer, put pressure on the Trump administration – and especially then-Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin – to suspend the sanctions imposed on Gertler and his businesses. Five days before the end of President Donald Trump’s term in January 2021, the sanctions were indeed suspended.
The suspension wasn’t formally announced; instead, the administration sent a letter to Gertler’s lawyers that they could show to banks to get Gertler’s accounts unfrozen. After TheMarker broke this story and the international media picked it up, the suspension was revoked under current Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen just weeks after she took office.
One potential beneficiary of the temporary lifting of the sanctions was a lawyer who worked for both Gertler and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Boaz Ben Zur. As TheMarker has previously reported, the sanctions led to Gertler’s bank accounts being frozen, making it hard for him to pay Ben Zur and other professionals who had done work for him.
A year before the sanctions were temporarily unfrozen, Ben Zur told a confidant that Gertler owed him a lot of money for unpaid legal bills, but the lawyer “trusted Gertler” to pay him the moment he could.
The “Israeli” entity boasts of its status as being the only democracy in the Middle East, but when it comes to freedom of the press, it isn’t completely democratic. The military censor has the power to prevent or restrict publication, and it has made and is still making use of that power in this affair – and not just with regard to this report.
In fact, Bloomberg’s March 2021 scoop about Cohen’s trips to Congo had been reported by Raviv Drucker of Channel 13 television a few months earlier, but under severe censorship restrictions that gutted the report of most of its content. Drucker reported that a “senior figure” had visited Congo, but was forbidden to identify Cohen as that person.
This Wednesday, a report on the issue will air on the Kan public broadcaster’s “Zman Emet” [“Real Time”] program, but it too will be subject to censorship.
Despite this censorship, TheMarker has been permitted to publish some new details. First, contrary to popular belief, Cohen didn’t fly to Congo on his own behalf, or to conduct “personal business,” as several senior officials in both the entity and Congo speculated after Bloomberg first reported on the visits.
These trips were approved “at the political level,” to quote the phrase used by several sources who spoke to TheMarker. That term almost certainly refers to Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, but it’s not clear whether the trips were also approved by the security cabinet or some larger forum.
Second, even though several defense officials who spoke with TheMarker defined the purpose of the surprise visits as “a national security interest,” they don’t clearly fit that bill. One could even say they are far from fitting it.
Third, nothing in the information obtained by TheMarker provides any explanation as to why the Mossad director had to go to Congo personally. That part of the story is evidently hiding some serious negligence, and the defense establishment isn’t allowing the necessary public discussion of it, ostensibly for reasons of national security. It’s hard to avoid the impression that defense officials’ considerations are at least as much about the entity’s image, and even Cohen’s image and that of the organization he headed, as they are about national security.
You don’t have to be a former Mossad chief to understand that for the Mossad director to personally make a surprise visit raises the risk of that visit coming to light. And indeed, nobody disputes that the visit did become widely known, because Cohen’s presence threatened the Congolese president, who deported him.
Dozens of people, if not more, were aware of this exceptional event – and from there, the road is short to the article published by Bloomberg and the subsequent articles published in the “Israeli” entity and other countries.
What was going through Cohen’s mind when, while still serving as Mossad director, he simply showed up in a foreign country without either coordinating his visit in advance or making any attempt to conceal his presence? Numerous former senior Mossad officials have been breaking their heads in an attempt to solve this riddle in recent months.
Many have used the word “insanity” in their bewilderment over Cohen’s actions, and all of them say they can’t recall a similar incident in the organization’s history. In the best case, they speculate, Cohen’s unusual behavior was the result of his extreme arrogance.
Cohen declined to comment for this report.
It’s also possible to say, without breaking any rules, that none of the information obtained by TheMarker provides sufficient explanation as to why Cohen needed the involvement of Gertler and Kabila – two people with bad reputations in the West – when on the face of it he could have achieved his goal without them.
The questions about this issue matter, because Gertler’s involvement in this mission legitimized the later efforts by Cohen and Dermer to help him by asking the US administration to ease sanctions on him. Dermer was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that Gertler “has lots of relationships in the region that are important to ‘Israel’s’ interests.” But it’s not clear why Gertler was asked to help Cohen, and it seems doubtful that his help was truly needed.
It’s not inconceivable that, sooner or later, the full details will be revealed by some foreign media outlet that isn’t subject to “Israeli” censorship. If the purpose of the trips is revealed, the ugly sides of the entity’s conduct will also come to light, and many people will view its conduct as that of a mafia regime.
This risk is the other side of the coin of describing Gertler as an asset to the “Israeli” entity’s so-called national security. Gertler and Kabila both possess sensitive information whose disclosure could severely harm the entity. That’s far from being a desirable situation.
As for the public discussion within the entity, it’s reasonable to assume that if the details are revealed, a public debate will erupt between those who are shocked and those who view Cohen’s actions as legitimate in light of the challenge they were meant to address. In contrast, there will likely be much less of a debate about the arrogant, negligent way the issue was handled.
If and when this information does come to light, the military establishment will also have to answer to the public for its conduct in censoring details about the affair. The issues that will be on the agenda are whom the military establishment was protecting by barring publication, to what extent the system’s considerations were really about national security, and to what extent it was simply covering the mistakes of its own members – and perhaps its own ass.
The “Israeli” Prime Minister’s Office said on behalf of the Mossad that “anything done by Yossi Cohen, if it was done, was in the framework of his job as head of the Mossad, with permission and authorization from the authorized parties.”'