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Israeli Intelligence Community

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Evolution Of The Israeli Intelligence Community And Its Activities

The origin of the Israeli intelligence services can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire (1516–1917) when netzah yisrael lo yeshaker (NILI) was founded as an espionage group seeking to assist the British army to conquer Palestine from the Turks in anticipation that Britain would establish in Palestine a homeland for Jewish people. NILI’s aims were sincere, but its members were amateurs. They tried to use homing pigeons to deliver intelligence information to the British, but they lacked the necessary skill and were caught.

The British set up their mandate in Palestine, and the idea of a Jewish homeland, the creation of a Jewish state in the territory, began to progress as anticipated. As a consequence, the Jewish-Arab conflict came into being, and the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) in the region established underground militias to assist illegal Jewish immigration.

The foremost and largest Jewish-Zionist underground militia was the Haganah, which had as its intelligence arm a body known as the Information Service (Sheruth Yedioth, or Shai). Its task was to collect information on the British, the Arabs, and the Jews in Palestine. Shai was formally set up in September 1940 and was structured as three main departments. The British department, also known as the Political Department, was assigned to infiltrate the British army, police, and government in mandatory Palestine. The Arab Department was headed by a Jewish Arabist, Ezra Danin. The Internal Department focused principally on Jews on the right of the political spectrum in Palestine who were members of militias other than the Haganah.

Two routes of immigration were open to Jews to emigrate from Europe, one legal —that is, permitted by the British— and the other illegal. The numbers of legal immigrants were small. Between 1939 and 1944, Britain allowed only 75,000 Jews to enter Palestine legally; beyond that figure, Jews could immigrate to Palestine only with Arab consent. The Mossad Le’Aliyah Beth came into being because of the need for illegal Jewish immigration. At first the organization consisted of 10 people working in six countries: Switzerland, Austria, France, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. These agents were assigned to produce false passports, arrange escape routes, and charter ships to carry the illegal immigrants to Palestine without being detected by the British authorities.

Another preindependence militia, which constituted the executive arm of the Haganah, was the Palmah. It had an Arab Platoon, whose members were Jews disguised as Arabs sent on intelligence missions in the Arab townships in Palestine and the neighboring Arab countries. Acquisitions (Rekhesh) was another organization, whose task was to buy arms and smuggle them into Palestine for the underground Jewish militias.

After the rise of Israel as an independent state in May 1948, Shai was disbanded the next month on 30 June. Utilizing Shai’s manpower and experience, the formal Israeli intelligence organizations were created. MI was established in the IDF, initially as the Department for Military Intelligence, later upgraded to the Directorate of Military Intelligence in 1953. The main task of MI in the 1950s was to assess the operational feasibility of military reprisals against proposed targets after fedayeen infiltration and attacks on Israeli civilians. Another task, which became the most dominant one, was to provide early warning against a possibility of war being launched against Israel by any neighboring Arab country. MI is still considered the principal intelligence organization in the Israeli intelligence community in assessing imminent threats.

The main activity of MI nowadays is to produce comprehensive national intelligence estimates for the Israeli prime minister and cabinet, including communications interception, target studies on the nearby Arab states, and intelligence about the chances of war. This function is known as assessment.

After the Yom Kippur War, some organizational changes were made in MI. The first and most important of these was the strengthening and upgrading in rank of the research done by MI. This function was upgraded from a research department to a research division. Another procedural change, known as the Siman-Tov Procedure, was the granting of permission to even junior intelligence officers to express their views and assessments to a higher-ranking officer if their immediate commander was reluctant to accept their opinions. A new unit known as the Control Unit was added to MI whose purpose is to take the stance of devil’s advocate. The officers of this unit are directly subordinate to the director of Military Intelligence (DMI).

The Air Intelligence Squadron performs the function of data collection by means of aerial reconnaissance and signals intelligence, using an assortment of intelligence equipment, including remotely piloted and unmanned vehicles that are recoverable and recyclable after first use.

These devices are excellent for gathering photographic information, which can be directly transmitted to commanders’ headquarters; immediate decisions can thus be made regarding troop deployment without ground reconnaissance being sent out.

The Naval Intelligence Squadron is a small unit of the Israel Navy that provides to the MI, on a consultative basis, assessments of seabased threats to Israel. The squadron is also responsible for coastal studies, naval gunfire missions, and beach studies for amphibious assaults.

Soon after the disbanding of the Shai, the Political Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs became responsible for collecting intelligence worldwide and for covert actions in Arab countries. This department was disbanded after the establishment of the Mossad in April 1949 and its reorganization in 1951. Originally the Mossad was engaged in covert action abroad, but after the Yom Kippur War, at the recommendation of the Agranat Commission, a research branch was set up. The aim was a pluralistic system of intelligence that uses more than just the single assessment prepared by MI. This is not an Israeli innovation, but it was adopted by Israeli intelligence. The usefulness of the pluralistic model still has to be studied, and conclusions drawn as to whether it serves the policy makers better or not.

Following another recommendation of the Agranat Commission, an intelligence arm was reestablished in the Foreign Ministry, again with the purpose of pluralism of assessment. This newly established body was named the Center for Political Planning and Research (CPPR). But in 1977, the foreign minister Moshe Dayan was reluctant to involve this intelligence arm too much in the planning and decision-making process, so the word “planning” was dropped and the name today is the Center for Political Research (CPR). Its main task is analysis of information received from foreign ministry diplomats worldwide.

The Israeli Security Agency (ISA)—popularly known in Israel and worldwide by the Hebrew acronym Shabak and also as Shin Bet—was formed initially in 1948 as a unit in the IDF for internal security and counterespionage. The Arab Affairs Branch of the ISA mainly conducts antiterrorist activities. The Non-Arab Affairs Branch is responsible for counterespionage; it was at first subdivided into Communist and non-Communist subsections, but that distinction became obsolete after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The functions of the Protective Security Branch of ISA include protecting foremost Israeli figures such as the president, the prime minister, and other government ministers. In addition, it is in charge of protecting state buildings, embassies, and Israeli airlines. At the recommendation of the Agranat Commission, a research department was set up in the Arab Affairs Branch of the ISA. This branch covers three fields: Palestine: political; Palestine: sabotage; and Palestinians: Israeli. Academics in the relative disciplines are engaged for research in these ISA areas.

In 1960, when Shimon Peres was deputy director-general of the Ministry of Defense, LAKAM was instituted, as noted above, to collect a variety of scientific and technical intelligence. After it became known that LAKAM had engaged Jonathan Jay Pollard to spy for Israel against the United States, LAKAM was disbanded; however, it is believed that a unit in the Foreign Ministry, whose name is unknown, is still engaged in obtaining technological knowledge worldwide for Israel.

Nativ, also mentioned earlier, was established in 1951. This intelligence organization has a glorious past as a sometimes clandestine operation bringing immigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, Nativ has become far less cloaked in secrecy, and there are thoughts of transforming it into a cultural organization.

The National Security Council (NSC) was established in 1999 according to the Israeli Government Resolution 4889, which was unanimously adopted on 7 March 1999. The NSC was designed to serve as a coordinating, integrative, deliberative, and supervisory body on matters of national policy; it operates as an arm of the Prime Minister’s Office. The chairman of the NSC also serves as national security adviser to the prime minister.

Early in 2000, for the first time in Israel’s history, the existence of the above-mentioned quasi-intelligence organization the DSDE became publicly known. The DSDE is deemed so secret that still now it is only conjectured that it was set up in the Ministry of Defense, probably in 1974 or even in the 1960s. The DSDE is apparently responsible for the physical security of the Defense Ministry and its research facilities, including the nuclear reactor at Dimona. It is also charged with preventing leaks from the Israeli security institutions, including the Mossad and the ISA.

To coordinate all the domestic and foreign intelligence activity of the Israeli intelligence community, the first director of the Mossad initiated the establishment of the Committee of Directors of the Intelligence Services, known by its Hebrew acronym VARASH. It first convened in 1949. Its members currently are the directors of the Mossad, MI, and the ISA; formerly the inspector general of the Israel Police, the director of the CPR in the Foreign Ministry, the counterterrorism adviser to the prime minister, and the director of Nativ were also members of VARASH.

Academic centers for strategic studies affiliated with Israeli universities serve as intelligence assessment organizations of a sort, as well. The best known are the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University; the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) at the Academic Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya; the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) at Tel Aviv University; and the Moshe Dayan Center for the Middle East, also at Tel Aviv University.

By and large, the mantra of the Israeli intelligence community, as invented by Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former DMI, and still applied, is “know your enemy.”

Successes Scored By The Israeli Intelligence Community

MI is known for a long list of assessment failures, especially the 1973 Yom Kippur War surprise. Yet its successes may be assumed to outnumber the failures. Successes are kept secret, while failures and fiascos immediately become headline news far and wide. Libya’s decision to cease its nonconventional weapons program was presumably the result of good or probably excellent Israeli intelligence gathering on that country. Israel no doubt shared this intelligence with the U.S. intelligence community, and the result was heavy pressure on Libya. International pressure on Iran may well be the outcome of first-class intelligence in whose collection Israel has taken part and still does, along with other Western intelligence communities.

MI has also dispatched Israeli spies to Arab countries. The best known are Eli Cohen, Max Binnet, and Wolfgang Lotz, among others. Although these three were ultimately caught, there were Israeli spies who were not apprehended and gathered important intelligence information that contributed to the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. In the 1960s the task of dispatching spies to Arab countries was assigned to the Mossad. Israeli spies who did an excellent job and were never caught include Yair Ben-Shaaltiel.

The IDF elite unit Sayeret Matkal has carried out the most daring covert military actions. The most famous is the Yehonathan Operation to free the passengers of Air France flight 139 who were hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Sayeret Matkal succeeded in rescuing the passengers from remote Entebbe, Uganda, on the night of 3/4 July 1976. These commandos also succeeded in a brilliantly planned covert action known as the Spring of Youth Operation in April 1973 in which Kamal Adwan, Kamal Nasser, and Abu Yussuf were killed for their part in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The Wrath of God Operation is another example of how the Mossad succeeded in tracing most of the Black September Organization (BSO) members who were in some way involved in the Munich massacre. Despite several failures in this operation, it is generally regarded as a success, though the main purpose of the assassination of the BSO was revenge. Sayeret Matkal also assassinated Abu Jihad in April 1988 and succeeded in many other covert actions that have not been made public. All these military covert actions were based on excellent intelligence.

The Mossad scored its most impressive success in Adolf Eichmann’s capture in 1960, bringing him to justice in Israel. Other Mossad feats in the 1960s included the discovery of the kidnapped Israeli boy Yossele Schumacher and stealing the MiG-21. The Mossad accomplished the secret conveyance of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the well-known Moses Operation and Solomon Operation in 1984–1985 and 1991, respectively. As for conveying Jews to Israel from countries in which they were living in distressful conditions, in the 1960s the Yakhin Operation bringing Jews from the Maghreb countries was a triumph for the Mossad. Even earlier, between 1949 and 1951 the Mossad Le’Aliyah Beth successfully carried out the Ezra and Nehemiah Operation, bringing most of the Jews of Iraq to Israel. In 1986 the Mossad was able to lure Mordechai Vanunu to Rome, from where he was taken to Israel to stand trial for treason.

The ISA scored notable successes in detecting spies. Among them was Yisrael Baer, who managed to gain access to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s diary on the 1948–1949 War of Independence. Another spy detected and caught by the ISA was Ze’ev Avni, the only Soviet spy who was able to penetrate the Mossad in the early 1950s.

Also in the 1950s, the ISA successfully elicited information on the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc by questioning new immigrants to Israel from those countries; this vital information was conveyed to the United States, then at the height of the Cold War. Furthermore, the ISA obtained from the new immigrants Soviet identity cards, which were of use to the United States in dispatching its agents clandestinely to the USSR. This contributed to the development of the Israel-U.S. intelligence cooperation in subsequent years. Israeli agents obtained Khrushchev’s Speech in 1956; it too was handed over to the United States, and this likewise promoted these intelligence ties.

In recent years, the ISA has won major victories in the war on Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians. Numerous early warnings of imminent terror attacks, around 50 each day, are received. Nevertheless, the volume of terrorism has been substantially contained.

Grave Failures As Well

Along with the impressive successes, Israeli intelligence, like every intelligence community, has failed in many instances, and these are the activities most talked about. Many of the failures led to great political scandals.

The earliest of these is known as the 1954 Bad Business. This was a kind of covert action in which members of a Jewish espionage network in Egypt carried out a series of sabotage attacks against Western targets that were meant to be seen as having been committed by Egyptians generally, thus driving a wedge between Great Britain and the United States and Egypt. The detection of the perpetrators of these deeds resulted in a major political scandal and the eventual resignation of Israeli prime ministers and ministers.

Another MI failure was the Night of Ducks debacle in 1959, when a general call-up exercise of the reserves was broadcast over Israel Radio, without prior announcement that any such exercise was to be held. As a result, the Arab armies believed that Israel was preparing for war and went into a state of high alert. This again led to a scandal and the forced resignation of Israeli generals, including the DMI at the time, Major General Yehoshafat Harkabi.

MI is known for a long series of assessment failures, many due to miscollection of information. The first is the Rotem Affair in February 1960, when most of the Egyptian army concentrated on the Negev border without any early Israeli intelligence warning. Another failure was the erroneous assessment of Egyptian intentions in the months preceding the Six-Day War. But the most notorious wrong assessment was that of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when MI failed to grasp the Egyptian and Syrian intentions of launching a war. After the Yom Kippur War, MI’s evaluation that Egypt was not yet ready for peace contributed to the lack of readiness of Israel’s political and military decision makers for Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative in 1977.

MI did not predict the Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories, known as the First Intifada, which started in December 1987. At the end of the 1980s MI failed to identify the buildup of Iraq’s nuclear capacity, and it gave no early warning of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which occurred in August 1990. In the 1990s, MI’s apocalyptic vision of unspeakable danger inherent in an Israeli pullout from the security zone in Lebanon prevented such a withdrawal. The ongoing IDF deployment in southern Lebanon incurred enormous costs in the lives of its troops. In the run-up to the war against Iraq in March 2003, MI overestimated Iraqi capabilities in weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s intention to use such weapons against Israel should his regime find itself with its back to the wall.

The Mossad, for its part, also suffered grave failures. One of the most infamous is the assassination in 1973 of Ahmed Bouchiki, an innocent Arab waiter in Lillehammer, Norway. He had been mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, one of the leaders of Black September Organization responsible for the Munich massacre of the Israeli athletes, who had found asylum in Norway. Furthermore, the Mossad agents used fake Canadian passports, which aroused the ire of the Canadian government.

In 1981 false British passports were discovered in a grocery bag in London; this eventually led to a diplomatic row between Britain and Israel over Mossad involvement in an attempt to infiltrate China.

In 1997 two Mossad agents were caught in Jordan (which had earlier signed a peace agreement with Israel) on a mission to assassinate Sheikh Khaled Mash’al, a leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, by injecting him with poison. Again, they were caught using false Canadian passports. This resulted in a diplomatic showdown with Canada and Jordan. Israel was forced to provide the antidote to the poison and release some 70 Palestinian prisoners, in particular the militant Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who played a prominent role in attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers during the current Al-Aqsa Intifada. In return, the Mossad agents, who would otherwise have faced the death penalty for attempted murder, were released.

In July 2004, New Zealand imposed diplomatic sanctions against Israel over an incident in which two Israelis, Uriel Kelman and Eli Cara, allegedly working for the Mossad, attempted to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports.

One ISA debacle is the arrest and torture of IDF lieutenant Izzat Nafsu for alleged treason. Another is the Bus 300 Affair. This grim affair of the summary killing of two Palestinian terrorists after their surrender was discovered by the Israeli press. Its exposure led to the concoction of a tissue of lies by an ISA officer, who claimed that Brigadier General Yitzhak Mordechay had beaten the terrorists to death before delivering their bodies to ISA officers.

Overseeing The Israeli Intelligence Community

Given the importance of intelligence, and especially the possibility of failures, oversight is essential. First and foremost is parliamentary oversight by the Knesset Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services. After almost every debacle, a commission of inquiry is appointed to study the matter, to determine the reasons for the failure, and to recommend improvements.

Following the 1954 Bad Business, four committees were appointed to investigate it. The first was the Ulshan-Dori Commission in 1955. Then came the Amiad Commission in 1958, followed by the Cohen Commission in 1960; the last to investigate this scandal was the Committee of Seven that same year. The problem was that none of these committees was a state commission of inquiry.

In 1963, still in the wake of the Bad Business but also following on the heels of the Damocles Operation, the Yadin-Sherf Commission recommended some kind of structural change in the Israeli intelligence community, making it more pluralistic. In a sense, the Yadin-Sherf Commission attempted to duplicate the U.S. pluralistic structure, which had evolved naturally. The recommendation on pluralism at that time was not implemented.

The Agranat Commission (1973–1974) reiterated the recommendation of a pluralist structure. To some extent it was implemented, especially by the creation of research units in the Mossad and the ISA and by the reestablishment of the CPR in the Foreign Ministry.

In the wake of the 1982 events at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut on 28 September 1982, the Israeli government resolved to establish a commission of inquiry in accordance with the Israeli Commissions of Inquiry Law of 1968. This was the Kahan Commission.

In 1984 the Zorea Commission investigated the Bus 300 Affair. And in 2003 the Israeli Knesset set up the Committee of Inquiry into Israel’s Intelligence System in Light of the War in Iraq.

Nativ as an intelligence organization was from its inception exempted from the scrutiny of the Israeli state comptroller, but now it is controlled just like any other Israeli government agency.

With regard to improvement in internal practices of the intelligence bodies, the following is an illustration. In 1948, soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, Meir Tobianski, a captain in the Haganah, was charged with treason. He was tried by field court-martial presided over by an officer without judicial training as judge, and he had no counsel for his defense. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed there and then. Over the years, this kind of behavior was gradually eradicated. On 16 November 2002 the Knesset adopted the ISA Law, which restricts the use of force against terrorists during their interrogation. A long course has indeed been traveled in the democratization process.

From Human Intelligence To Technological Intelligence

During Israel’s prestate days and for some time after statehood, all organizations of the Israeli intelligence community relied mostly, if not solely, on human intelligence (HUMINT). HUMINT contributed a lot to gathering information about the Arab armies’ capabilities. Eli Cohen was regarded as “Our Man in Damascus,” Wolfgang Lotz in Egypt was known as “Tel Aviv’s Eye in Cairo,” and Max Binnet and Sylvia Rafael fulfilled the same human role in many Arab and non-Arab countries. Even before the Yom Kippur War, the Mossad engaged Marwan Ashraf, the son-in-law of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, as Top Source, who conveyed to his Mossad handlers Egyptian military capabilities and even intentions, with a certain degree of accuracy. Even King Hussein —who, although not an Israeli spy or agent, provided early warning against possibility of war in 1973— can be regarded in a sense as a kind of purveyor of HUMINT.

So, a great deal of intelligence collecting was by means of spies in Arab countries. However, since even before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence has relied mostly on technological intelligence, which includes signals intelligence (SIGINT). Unit 8200 in MI is considered among the best SIGINT agencies in the world, equal in status to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), albeit smaller in budget and workforce. Israel, although a small country, is one of the pioneers in imagery intelligence (IMINT) and has developed intelligence satellites.

The Mossad is considered one of the leading intelligence agencies in the world in the field of high-tech electronics. It has developed a powerful computer database, known as PROMIS, which can store and retrieve enormous quantities of information. This technology is even sold by the Mossad to intelligence communities of foreign countries.


From time to time, in Israel as in other countries, traitors in the nation’s defense establishment are uncovered. The best known, and probably the one who caused the most damage to Israeli security interests, is Yisrael Baer, previously a lieutenant colonel in the IDF and close to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and his secrets on the history of the War of Independence. He delivered state secrets to the Soviets and was arrested in 1961. Marcus Avraham Klinberg, deputy director of the Biological Institute in Nes Tsiona, where Israel allegedly produces biological weapons, was arrested in 1983 and convicted of conveying secrets to the Soviets. Mordechai Vanunu, an ex-technician at the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, gave away secrets of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the Sunday Times in 1986. Victor Ostrovsky, a former case officer trainee in the Mossad, wrote and published a detailed book on the Mossad without permission. Shimon Levinson, formerly a colonel in the IDF and affiliated with the Mossad, was arrested in 1993 for treason and spying for the Soviet Union.

Future Challenges

In the present day and age, Israeli intelligence still has to be alert to the moods in enemy states, principally Syria and especially Iran with its nuclear weapons program. But at the same time, the Israeli intelligence community is committed to assessing opportunities for peace, and the ISA is required to find openings for dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, in addition to warning of terrorist acts. Another challenge is acquiring intelligence not only on Arab terrorism generated outside Israel but on Israeli terrorism within as well, focusing on subversive individuals among Israeli Arabs and Jews. Dealing with the Jewish and Arab sectors in Israel has likewise to be adjusted to the public mood, which lays increasing stress on human rights.

Yet, regardless of the advances of technology in all fields of Israeli intelligence activity, the human factor, and the quality of intelligence personnel, still rate highest. This is attested by the very high bar that has to be crossed by candidates wishing to enter the ranks of the Israeli intelligence community.

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