Israel’s Intelligence Wars

March 2, 2016

On January 12, the spokesman of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) announced the resignation of Brig. Gen. Eli Ben-Meir as head of the Research Division due to differences of opinion with the chief of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi. According to several prominent Israeli media channels, the dispute revolved around disagreement on the way the Research Division should be managed — along with personal differences between the two senior officers. Such a situation is extremely rare, especially since Ben-Meir was assigned to his position only a year ago — the term usually lasts three or four years.

Rare as it is, this event is a good opportunity to examine one of the most intriguing anomalies among intelligence agencies in the Western world. Unlike in the United States, where the body responsible for the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — a civilian organ — the responsible official in Israel is a military officer. With recent dramatic changes in Israel’s intelligence community leadership, it will be interesting to see if there will be changes to Israel’s national assessment structure and practice.

The head of the Research Division is one of several brigadier generals in the Military Intelligence Directorate. His direct commanding officer is the head of the Intelligence Directorate, who in turn reports to the joint chief of staff (JCS). The latter reports to the minister of defense, who is part of the government under the prime minister.

However, the same head of the Research Division is also called “the national estimator” — i.e., the most senior official responsible for the national strategic assessment. He reports directly to the prime minister, minister of defense and cabinet without the need to get preliminary approval for his assessment from his superiors in the military. In this capacity, the head of the Research Division is expected to deliver an independent intelligence assessment regarding practically every geopolitical, social and economic challenge that Israel faces — now and in the future — regardless of the opinions of his direct commanders, the head of the Intelligence Directorate and the JCS.

In other words, the head of the Research Division is beholden to two masters: He is the intelligence officer of both the government and the IDF. To complicate things further, each one of these entities requires different analytic inputs. Lastly, even when the head of the Intelligence Directorate briefs the state’s leadership, he relies upon the Research Division’s assessments, all of which are approved by the division commander.

Indeed, there are several other intelligence agencies that operate in parallel to Israeli military intelligence with regard to intelligence assessment: the Shin Bet — a.k.a., the Israel Security Agency (ISA) — and the Mossad (“Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations”). Less prominent is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Research Center (MAMAD). Each one of these entities conducts strategic intelligence estimates and submits to the prime minister, the minister of defense, the cabinet and other elements. Ultimately, each organization has a specialty and field of interest (e.g., the Shin Bet focuses on terror and the Palestinian theater; Mossad focuses on unconventional weapons). By contrast, the only body with the capacity — and responsibility — to present a holistic strategic assessment is the Intelligence Directorate. (Shin Bet is responsible for doing so only with regard to internal threats.) Even the National Security Council — established in 1999, and initially intended to operate as the prime minister’s council for national security issues — is still a relatively toothless body when it comes to producing intelligence estimates, and operates under the shadow of the Intelligence Directorate and the other agencies.

This unique state of affairs has historic roots. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, the Hagana (the primary quasi-military body of the Jewish community in Palestine) operated a small intelligence unit called “the SHAI” (an acronym of Sherut Yediot, or “information service”). Since the Hagana was the skeleton on which the IDF was built, it was only natural that the organization’s intelligence unit would become the most prominent such agency in the state. Furthermore, the new intelligence unit had no real competition: A parallel organization was under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but was focused on acquiring information via diplomatic channels. The Shin Bet was focused on internal security, and the Mossad was only a coordinating and administrative body with zero relevance to actual intelligence work. Lastly, the SHAI (and later the IDF’s intelligence unit) were the only entities that had access to signals intelligence sources. This gave its commanders (as well as the JCS) prestige and significant advantages over any other intelligence entity.

As the years went by, the role of the head of the Intelligence Directorate has become even more influential, especially given the unique characteristics of the individuals who have headed this organization. Moreover, it is important to note that most — but not all — prime ministers have had significant military experience in which they worked closely with military intelligence. In a militarized society such as that of Israel, the military enjoys great prominence in public and political discourse — and is oftentimes considered to be the supreme authority for Middle Eastern affairs. For the military, having such an influential body with direct contact to national-level leadership is nothing short of a prestigious asset. Cynics might even say that the military leverages this close relationship to promote somber descriptions of current and future events — thereby influencing the ongoing allocation of state resources in their favor.

It is, therefore, not surprising that despite several previous attempts to create an alternative, Israeli military intelligence has remained the most prominent and influential body responsible for the national strategic assessment.

It is worth mentioning that in the past there have been disputes between the head of the Intelligence Directorate and the head of the Research Division. Oftentimes, these disputes revolved around the intelligence assessment itself, especially when dealing with explosive political questions — such as former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s attitude towards the peace process with Israel, and his involvement in terror in midst of it. Other controversies have revolved around whether the head of the Research Division and his people should be involved in strategizing Israeli policy, or whether they should merely remain objective, describe reality and refrain from any involvement in policy.

Nevertheless, this is the first time that the head of the Research Division has resigned in the middle of his term. Whether the reason for this resignation is professional, personal or both, this event demonstrates the need of the Israeli intelligence community to recalibrate the national strategic assessment mechanisms. The fact that such an important figure — who has direct access to national leadership — has decided to resign in the midst of a sensitive and challenging time for Israel only emphasizes the need to have an independent and civilian national intelligence assessment body. Such an organization needs to have full access to the intelligence community’s variety of sources; it must also operate closely with the prime minister in order to ensure its influence on national decision-making. Given the inherent conflict of interest due to the fact that the military is arguing for state resources based on its own (almost sole) strategic assessment, the current dynamic is tricky — not to say undemocratic. Israeli intelligence requires a more balanced mechanism to keep its national assessment both unbiased and transparent.

Since the resignation of Brig. Gen. Ben-Meir, new heads of Shin Bet and Mossad were announced, as well as Ben-Meir’s successor as head of the Research Division. It will be interesting to see if, and how, these individuals will change the structure and process of Israel’s national assessment, especially since a new head of the National Security Council has yet to be appointed.

 

Dr. Shay Hershkovitz is Wikistrat’s Chief Strategy Officer. He is also an adjunct professor at the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and at Bar-Ilan University.

 

Photo credit: Ze’ev Barkan