Security and Defense: Israel's Cyber Ambiguity

Reaction to "Flame" virus suggests that on cyber warfare, J'lem has adopted its wink-and-smile nuclear policy.

Engineer checks equipment at Tehran internet service 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Engineer checks equipment at Tehran internet service 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nuclear ambiguity has played a critical role in Israeli national defense strategy for over 50 years.
Israel neither admits to nor denies having nuclear weapons. Instead, Israeli leaders wink, smile, give a pat on the back and say something about how Israel knows how to protect itself whenever they are asked about these purported capabilities.
This week we were witness to a new element of the country’s defense doctrine, called “cyber ambiguity.”
On Tuesday, a day after a Moscow-based security company revealed that a new cyber weapon called “Flame” had struck Iran, Vice Premier and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon fueled speculation of Israeli involvement by praising Israeli technological prowess in response to a radio interview on the issue.
Israel, he said, was blessed with superior technology. “These achievements of ours open all kinds of possibilities for us,” he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said when he spoke that evening that when it comes to cyberspace, the size of a country is insignificant – but that there is great significance to a country’s “scientific strength, and with that Israel is blessed.”
While no Israeli official came out and took responsibility for the virus attack, the ambiguity was too loud to ignore.
The purpose of this ambiguity is that it does not really make a difference whether Israel, the United States or Russia was behind the sophisticated virus that effectively turns every computer it infects into the ultimate spy.
By detecting the infection of its computers, Iran understands that it is vulnerable and will continue to be as long as it defies the international community with its nuclear program.
Kaspersky Lab, which discovered the virus, assessed that it was created by a state – a conclusion reached by analysts who studied the code of the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz two years ago.
There are a limited number of Israeli agencies that could have been involved in writing code for such malware.
The first is Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200, the equivalent of the US National Security Agency, which is responsible for signal intelligence, eavesdropping on the enemy and code decryption and was entrusted in 2009 with the IDF’s offensive cyber capabilities.
Another possibility is the Mossad, which also has strong technological capabilities but is slightly inferior to Unit 8200, the largest unit within the IDF.
The Mossad has, however, received a major boost in its budget in recent years to help it acquire the resources needed to effectively combat Iran’s nuclear program. Its focus has reportedly been on covert operations such as acts of sabotage and assassinations but likely includes cyberwarfare as well.
Either way, no matter how advanced a cyber attack Israel or the US launches against Iran today, it probably will not be enough to stop the country’s pursuit of a nuclear capability.
The same can unfortunately be said so far for the current sanctions as well as for the two rounds of talks the West has held with Iran, which is continuing to enrich uranium in larger quantities than before.
In the last three months, Ya’alon revealed on Wednesday, Iran enriched 750 kilograms of uranium to 3.5 percent – 10% of what it had enriched in the last five years – and 36 kg. of uranium to 20% – which was 20% of all the uranium it had enriched to that level until now. This all happened while Tehran was supposed to be negotiating a resolution with the West.
That is why, with the arrival of the summer, Israel will be entering a critical period during which Netanyahu might finally be forced to make a decision regarding a possible military strike against Iran.
It is telling that Israel has not attacked until now, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained at a security conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday that Israel will wait until the last possible moment before deciding to take such action. The question is, though, how much time does it have? This goes back to the questions surrounding the potency of Israel’s potential military option and the point at which Iran will enter the so-called time “immunity zone” when its facilities will be fortified to the point that an Israeli strike will no longer be effective.
Officially, Israel is not revealing its cards and here, too, is maintaining a policy of ambiguity with regards to the timing of a possible military strike.
The reason is because while some of Israel’s saber-rattling is genuine, a large chunk of it is part of what some people might call a bluff strategy aimed at getting the world to do the work needed on its behalf.
This was more than apparent in Barak’s speech on Wednesday when he zigzagged between saying that Iran was already a sword up against Israel’s neck – a term borrowed from former Mossad chief and anti-Iran strike activist Meir Dagan – and then calling on people to calm down, citing Israel’s close cooperation with the US when it comes to dealing with Iran.
What this probably means is that Israel has not yet made up its mind, mainly because it has not yet had to, since there is still some time left to allow the international community – through sanctions and diplomacy – to continue trying to slow down and disrupt Iran’s program.
While the government’s focus right now is on the question of what to do and when to do it, in the IDF there is a different discourse taking place, which is mostly focused on the day after such a strike and on the war that it expects will ensue.
While any military attack against Iran will be complicated and will stretch the Air Force to its limits, the larger IDF will need to brace for the fallout that is expected to include missile attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly from Syria as well.
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan gave a fascinating lecture on what this war might look like on Wednesday at Bar-Ilan University. Firstly, he said, while Hezbollah is an independent force, it is also loyal to the mullahs and if asked to retaliate, it will likely be unable to say no.
The second interesting point he made was his refusal to provide an estimate of how many rockets Hezbollah currently has in its arsenal. What difference does it make, he asked, claiming that no matter how many it is – 40,000 50,000 or 60,000 – it is not of the quantity or quality to defeat the State of Israel.
Had such a remark been made by any other IDF general, it could be dismissed as typical military arrogance. Golan, however, knows what he is talking about.
His previous position as head of the Home Front Command exposed him to the civilian side of the kind of war he will now be in command of in the north.
Israel’s strategy, he then said, would be a combination of two main elements: an immediate ground offensive and standoff firepower, mostly from the air. The purpose, he explained, will be to defeat Hezbollah by killing large numbers of fighters, seizing its weaponry and destroying its infrastructure.
He then explained what the objective of such a war will be – not the destruction of Hezbollah but rather the postponement of the next war for as long as possible.
Golan’s remarks were meant not just for Hezbollah’s ears but also for the ayatollahs in Iran. If the West can’t convince Iran to stop its nuclear program with diplomacy and sanctions, then maybe explaining what will happen to Hezbollah – Iran’s prized proxy – will have an effect.