When Silence is Golden

12. März 2012 0

Book Review on Gilboa and Lapid: Israel’s Silent Defenders: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence

Blick auf das Rote Meer und die Grenze zum Feind Israels – Bild: sven scherz-schade / pixelio.de

Intel is a nation’s silent defense system as proposed by this encyclopedic collection of essays compiled by the editors Amos Gilboa and Ephraim Lapid for the Meir Amit Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center. Israel’s Silent Defenders sketches out in relatively short essays, the four different components to Israel intel’s landscape:

  • IDI = Israel Defense Intelligence, the Israel Defense Force’s military intelligence department
  • ISA = Israel Security Agency also known by its Hebrew abbreviation as Shabak or the Shin Bet, roughly equivalent to the FBI
  • Mossad = literally the „Foundation“ and parallel to the CIA, dealing with all matters of security outside of Israel
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s own department of intelligence (of which we learn less, which peaks one’s curiosity as to what really goes on in that particular department).

Why would the Israeli intelligence community seek to publish an overview of how its different intelligence agencies work? There may be several answers to this question. The one which is the most self evident is, namely to commemorate the loss of one of its most venerated directors, Meir Amit who was a Sabra born in 1921 and died in 2009. He headed both Mossad (for a brief time) and IDI at the same time and later became a member of the Knesset achieving the position of minister as well as the founder of the central repository of memory for the intel community the Center which now bears his name. One could say that this book is a sefer zikaron, a genre of Hebrew literature that commemorates especially the death of so many communities wiped out during the Holocaust. In a very real way the book expresses a unique kind of Israeli group pride. On the other hand, waxing less poetically, the text is a no nonsense attempt to „control“ the official narrative of how Israeli intel works.

I attended a thought provoking lecture given by Ephraim Lapid, the second editor hosted by the American Association of Canadians and Americans in Israel (March  4, 2012, Tel Aviv) in which more light was shed on how Israeli intel must struggle with processing 8 million pieces of information per day, analyzing them and extracting the 80 pieces which are the most salient and relevant. This is a daunting task; there are thousands who are at work daily on this problem of distilling information into intel.

Several months ago I wrote a review of another book  A High Price by Daniel Byman concerning the triumphs and failures of Israeli counterterrorism. However the book under current review is entirely different in nature due to several things. This is an edited text composed by over thirty different experts who had on the ground first hand experience concerning their topic. The book covers different territory: 1. The heads of the intelligence community describe their vision and challenges (lege – hearing it from the horse’s mouth), 2. Roots of how the intelligence services were founded, 3. Examples of intelligence operations: successes and failures, 4. Intelligence challenges – Lebanese, Palestinian, Iranian, Soviet arenas as well as in terrorism, public relations i.e. Battle for the Hearts and Minds, 5. Branches and components of Israeli intel such as technology, SIGINT, HUMINT, OSINT, VISINT („pictures can be used as a  common language“) air force and naval and counter intelligence and finally 6. The dynamics of intel activity with Mossad, operational demands placed on intel, relationship concerning decision makers and the head of intel, the revision process in intel and a very important though short piece ending the volume on group think entitled problems with collective thinking. A herd mentality runs the risk of becoming cult like and hence a poor quality of analysis will ensue. Freedom is key to inquiry.

There are a series of excellent high gloss pictures of historical value that have been inserted into this mini-encyclopedia. In addition, three helpful appendices cover: A Historical Timetable broken down by year, intelligence event with background along with regional and international aspects; Special Topics — how the intel community began, the Night of the Ducks in 1959, Operation Yahalom bringing the Iraqi MIG-21 to Israel, Bus No. 300 in 1984, investigatory commissions, anti-Israel Espionage Affairs, and the ISA Law 2002. The last appendix deals with author biographies, providing more specifics on each one’s involvement in the subject matter. The appendixes were composed by the first editor Amos Gilboa.

It must be noted in passing that there is only one female voice in this entire collection, that of Yochi Erlich who is also the associate editor. Her excellent essay on „The Beginning: From an Information Service (Shai) to a Military Intelligence Service in the War of Independence (1948-1949) serves as both a frame and an anchor for the essays that follow.

Not to belabor my criticism concerning gender, it remains unfortunate that there is this deficit which speaks to a fundamental shortcoming in intelligence that to date there has been no appointment of a woman to lead a major branch of  intelligence even though there has already been one woman Prime Minister as early as 1969. This is not a minor quibble when half of one’s  potential pool of applicants is overlooked. After all if women are monitoring the border with Gaza for its infiltration into Israel (p. 241), can they not be groomed to assume a greater position of authority? For as long as Israeli intel culture has difficulty promoting and advancing women within its ranks, its intelligence will be woefully limited and could pose a threat to national security. It can be likened to shooting oneself in the foot. Hindsight being 20-20,  who knows what could have been with some of the major intel failures like Operation Suzanne or the Yom Kippur War? There is a greater irony in all of this. Does not this oversight dovetail with and function as a kind of mirror image to the devalued female in Arab Muslim culture, precisely the root of war and terrorism?

Israel’s Silent Defenders: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence is a singularly important book, not to be missed by students, advisors, academics, other professionals of national security, political science, history (especially military history) sociology, anthropology and social psychology etc. and most especially the lay public. The book should be made available in e-book format and it should be considered a viable textbook.

Furthermore in answer to the question – why now a book on Israeli intel? It can be understood as an earnest effort to make understandable Israel’s need to defend itself. It is a wise public relations strategy to give transparency to a subject matter which by definition is predicated on secrecy. It merited being translated into English due to global importance of the subject matter. This is a fascinating read though some of the essays are actually too short and not meaty enough. Yet it gives a student of intel insight into how Israel works.

The book was first published in Hebrew under the titled מלאכת מחשבת (Melekhet  mahshevet) taken from a phrase in Exodus 35:33 in reference to the work of the Kohanim, work that has been given great and serious thought on the order of a master piece. While it is highly unlikely that the book will win the Israeli Prize for Literature due to its lack of footnotes and index which would have made it much easier for this reader, nonetheless it is the most comprehensive book concerning an overview of Israeli intelligence that we have to date. It should be required reading for all as  it was noted by Boaz Ganor, the head of the Interdisciplinary Center for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya in his essay – „In many instances, the experience gained by Israel has turned it into a role model for other countries around the world.“

Amos Gilboa and Ephraim Lapid (2012): Israel’s Silent Defenders: An Inside Look at Sixty Years of Israeli Intelligence. Jerusalem: Gefen Press and Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center.

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