Nadav Argaman: Fighting terror and transforming the Shin Bet

According to defense officials, Argaman's tenure as director has seen one of the greatest transformations of the intelligence agency.

 Nadav Argaman. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
Nadav Argaman.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)

On May 11, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the media. Israel was two days into its most recent war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip known as Guardian of the Walls, and it was time to address the nation.

Netanyahu spoke first. For two minutes, he detailed what Israel had done since Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem on the festival of Jerusalem Day, and the type of targets it had attacked and would continue to strike. The operation, he said, would require time and patience.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz spoke next. He took up three minutes and was followed by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, who spoke for two.

The last to speak was Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman. He spoke for only 25 seconds, but had a clear and concise message.

“A terror group that threatens Israeli citizens is intolerable,” he said. “A terror group that shoots rockets at our capital city on its holiday is intolerable. We are in the middle of an operation and now is not the time to talk. We will continue to do what is right to ensure the security of all our citizens. Stay safe, good night and good luck.”

SHIN BET Director Nadav Argaman.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)SHIN BET Director Nadav Argaman. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It was a classic Argaman moment. Later, when some of his subordinates mentioned how his brief comments stood out, Argaman explained that he meant every word. That evening, the IDF and Shabak were planning a surprise operation in Gaza. Talking was a waste of time.

And that pretty much summed up Argaman’s tenure as the head of the Shin Bet for the last five-and-a-half years, since he took over the role in May 2016. Most Israelis, if they bumped into him on the street, would not know that the middle-aged Israeli standing before them wearing his trademark jeans and polo shirt is one of Israel’s most senior security officials.

After 38 years of service, Argaman will retire next week. According to defense officials, his tenure as director has seen one of the greatest transformations of the intelligence agency. Argaman likes to tell his subordinates that when he was recruited into the agency 38 years ago shortly after his IDF service, HUMINT (human intelligence) was responsible for the majority of the Shabak’s information.

Considering that this was the 1980s, it made sense. Israel was everywhere it wanted to be. It had complete control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Shin Bet agents could come and go as they saw fit to recruit and meet with moles throughout the Palestinian territories.

The big change came in 2005, when Israel pulled out of Gaza. While the IDF has continued to operate there as needed, and the Shin Bet has continued to recruit agents, it is no longer the same. The ability to meet agents on the ground is no longer as simple as it once was, meaning that the ability to rely on human intelligence is also no longer enough.

Today, most of the Shin Bet’s intelligence comes from technological sources. More than 30% of the organization’s staff are operatives working in technological positions, and the IT department is looked at as the Shin Bet’s most important weapon. Argaman oversaw the merger of the agency’s SIGINT (signal intelligence) department with its tech department, meaning that from technological research through an operation, there is only one department involved, cutting down unnecessary bureaucracy.

Argaman has provided some insight into the results of this technological transformation. In 2017, for example, more than 2,000 terrorist attacks were thwarted with information obtained via cyber tools.

“The technological improvements that we made merged with our field experience and operations has contributed to the drop in terrorism,” he said at the time.

To help facilitate this change, Argaman tore down a lot of the red tape that until his appointment had held back the Shabak. Today, department chiefs have the ability to hire top computer, cyber and tech experts on special contracts, giving them the ability to pay upward of NIS 60,000 a month, far more than the agency’s average salary. As he often tells his top brass, if they are not flexible, people will simply not come.

Another change has been in the way the Shin Bet works with Military Intelligence. In 2016, both agencies operated independently. Egos played too big a role, leading, for example, to the Shabak and MI sometimes working on the same threat and mission without knowing about the other. Argaman decided to put the intra-agency fighting to an end, signing an agreement a few years ago that outlines and clarifies responsibilities and how the two organizations cooperate. Today, officials explain, the relationship is seamless, simply plug and play.

Similar agreements were reached with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and counter-terrorism agencies in Europe. Israel, Argaman tells close associates, cannot do everything on its own and needs to know how to work together.

RESPONSIBLE FOR combatting Palestinian terrorism, the Shin Bet needs to keep a constant eye on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Gaza is surrounded by a fence and is sealed off from Israel. The Iron Dome provides protection from incoming rockets, and new technology, deployed by the IDF, has been successful in detecting cross-border attack tunnels. Sealed off, all Hamas and Islamic Jihad have left is to fire rockets or send over an incendiary balloon. Their ability to do more is limited.

The same cannot be said about the West Bank that continues to be ruled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose clout and influence is constantly under threat from Hamas. The results are evident in the field, where Palestinian security forces are less active. This has forced the IDF to enter Palestinian cities more frequently than in the past, as seen by the spate of recent arrest raids in the area of Jenin, a hotbed for Islamic Jihad terrorists.

The situation has become tense enough that Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi recently ordered the IDF Central Command to draw up plans for an operation inside Jenin, in the event that the situation there continues to escalate. It would be something like the style of Operation Defense Shield in 2002, which saw the IDF retake all Palestinian areas and clean them out of terrorist infrastructure one by one.

LIKE MANY members of the defense establishment, Argaman has long argued for more engagement with the Palestinian Authority. The difference between him and some of his defense colleagues is that Argaman is probably the Israeli who has spent the most time with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in recent years, often serving as the mediator between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Defense officials admit that while Abbas is not the perfect peace partner, he is one of the only Palestinian leaders to not encourage terrorism. The Shin Bet, for example, is concerned that the leader after Abbas – no matter who comes next – will be controlled by Hamas, even if he will not come directly from among its ranks.

The window to influence what happens next is narrow. Abbas turns 86 next month, and while Bennett has allowed some of the government ministers – Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz – to meet the PA leader, the prime minister has yet to make any decisions on potential economic confidence-building measures that Israel could offer Ramallah.

A number initiatives were recently proposed to Bennett but have yet to be approved. They include the opening of more joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones in the West Bank, the digitization of crossings to make it easier for Palestinian laborers to cross into Israel, and the establishment of a rail system throughout parts of the West Bank, connecting, for example, Hebron with Bethlehem and Ramallah.

This has not impressed Bennett, who – as illustrated by his speech to the United Nations – prefers to ignore the presence of the Palestinians as part of a hope that if he doesn’t acknowledge their presence, he will not have to do anything with them. This might be a nice idea in theory, but in practice it is unlikely to work.

The coming years will be critical for the stability of the West Bank, and Israel will have to make some tough choices. The defense establishment – the IDF and Shin Bet – would like to see more Palestinian governance and security capabilities in the West Bank. For that to happen, there needs to be engagement with Ramallah, something this government does not seem willing to do right now.

How will that play out? Time will tell.