Israel's Shin Bet and its future as a cyberwarfare superpower

A look at who will replace outgoing spy chief Nadav Argaman, whose term ends in May 2021.

NADAV ARGAMAN: Coming to the end of a successful term. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
NADAV ARGAMAN: Coming to the end of a successful term.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In January 2019, Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman dropped a bombshell. Speaking to a group of Tel Aviv University donors, Argaman warned that a foreign state was trying to intervene in Israel’s upcoming election that April, in what would be the first of three votes the country would hold within a year.
While he did not name the country – many later speculated that it was Russia – Argaman said that “it is trying to intervene – and I know what I am talking about.” It was a rare comment by a man who for the past four-and-a-half years has, for the most part, stayed far away from the spotlight, his trademark since joining the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in the 1980s after serving in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit.
But it also showed the key area that Argaman has put an emphasis on since taking up his top post in 2016 – cyberwarfare.
Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman stands in front of the wall of fallen servicepeople at Shin Bet headquarters. (Shin Bet)
Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman stands in front of the wall of fallen servicepeople at Shin Bet headquarters. (Shin Bet)
IN MAY, when Argaman steps down, for most defense observers his tenure will have been a success.
Several former top Shin Bet officials told the Magazine that Argaman’s era has mostly been characterized by improvements in the agency’s use of cyber technology.
In the era of his predecessor, Yoram Cohen, the Shin Bet started to move from classic intelligence collection from field agents and SIGNINT [signal intelligence] to cyber.
“Yoram took it much deeper,” said one source. Still, in comparison, in Argaman’s era the investment in technology and cyber skyrocketed and is said to have taken the spy agency to a new level.
According to defense sources, Argaman exploited open-source information with big data mining techniques to complement the Shin Bet’s secretive spying tools, achieving radical new synergies that were previously unimaginable, turning cyber technology into a natural part of the Shin Bet’s toolkit.
The sources complimented Argaman not only for overseeing Israel’s cyberdefenses – like in the pre-election attack in January 2019 – but also for secretive offensive cyberoperations against Israel’s enemies, carried out to establish deterrence and disrupt planned attacks.
According to these sources, one-third of the Shin Bet is now made up of its technology division.
Argaman incentivized bright minds in the civilian sector to develop technologies tailored to the agency’s needs through a new start-up initiative which saw the agency partner with Tel Aviv University’s academic-based venture capital fund TAU Ventures.
This increase in “cyber staff” is said to have contributed to the successful thwarting of foreign interventions in the last three elections.
Some officials also noted Argaman’s empowerment of the agency’s operations wing which, they said, has taken on more daring and aggressive operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For example, sources said Argaman was adamant about eliminating Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata in November even when some other senior officials opposed the targeted killing.
As part of this trend, Argaman has promoted officials with mostly operational backgrounds into key agency posts.
Another important change Argaman made was to create synergies between the agency’s operations personnel and its strategic thinkers. A greater exchange of ideas between these usually separate wings has made both sides more interdisciplinary.
Argaman has also promoted a substantial number of female agents to top roles in the agency. He promoted a female agent to head the agency’s analysis division, giving her a seat on the Shin Bet’s high command. Moreover, he placed an increasing number of women in operational roles than in the past.
Argaman is praised for approaching complex problems with a balance of “carrots” and “sticks.” This means not only attacking Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, but also seeking to enhance economic development there to incentivize a ceasefire.
Seeking nuance, the Shin Bet generally banned allowing Palestinians from Gaza into Israel for work, but encouraged greater openness to trading goods over the border.
The current Shin Bet chief never wanted to be involved with fighting the coronavirus. He always viewed this as exposing the Shin Bet’s counterterrorism technologies. Still, like a good soldier, Argaman led the agency’s involvement in tracking infection trends.
Some 47,000 infected citizens were located exclusively by the Shin Bet’s tracking tool and many more were tracked by the agency using information provided by the Health Ministry.
While to this day there are a sizable volume of critics who believe the Shin Bet should not have been involved due to privacy violations – and Argaman himself told this to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at one point – no one questions that there were also lives saved due to the use of the agency’s tracking tools.
THOUGH 2020 has been a relatively quiet year in terms of terrorism, this was not for lack of trying.
Terrorists were as active as ever, but Argaman’s Shin Bet thwarted more than 500 significant potential attacks.
This rate was fairly consistent year to year. Thus, by the time he retires he will likely have led efforts to thwart around 2,500 attacks with guns, explosives or other deadly weapons.
Argaman’s tenure also included thwarting several plots by Iran and Hezbollah to recruit local Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians.
A less-reported trend was his frequent meetings with Western intelligence officials looking to learn from the Shin Bet’s cutting-edge methods to fight terror. This both helped the global fight against terror and enhanced Israel’s reputation.
Not everyone was positive about Argaman, however.
Sources said he sometimes lost sight of the fact that the Shin Bet’s mission is counterterrorism in the broader sense. The broader sense refers not only to operations that lead to capturing or killing terrorists – which Argaman was known for excelling at – but also a wide variety of intelligence collection and analysis that lead up to that point.
Along these lines, there was criticism that too many of the top five officials under Argaman came from operations-dominated backgrounds and that the agency’s top level does not include officials with more diverse intelligence roles.
According to these sources, the risk in having a homogeneous leadership is that the officials will usually lean toward one single option even if there are other intelligence tools available for their use.
Likewise, there was some criticism that even at the middle and lower levels, not enough encouragement was given to intelligence collection and human spying.
Instead, some said Argaman – like many intelligence leaders given powerful new technological tools – at times leaned too heavily on tech, not fully realizing the unique benefits human assets provide.
Sources claimed that this has played out in resource allocation.
Just as the technology division exploded in size, resources for human spying, interrogations and other classic clandestine work have been less emphasized under Argaman.
In terms of his successor, sources frame the competition as a three-way race between: “R,” the current Shin Bet deputy chief; a different “R,” who was the previous deputy chief; and National Security Council (NSC) chief Meir Ben-Shabbat.
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018. (HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018. (HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Netanyahu has not publicly spoken about the upcoming appointment, but most sources believe he will make a decisive push to appoint Ben-Shabbat, due to their close working relationship.
Ben-Shabbat would say that he is focused on his present job but would heed the “call of the flag” if requested to fill the role.
In contrast, sources expect Argaman to support his current deputy “R,” whom he has tried to position as his successor and with whom he worked at a variety of levels in operations over the years.
While each of the three candidates enjoys support, the debate surrounding Ben-Shabbat is far more spirited. There is a camp that prefers either of the Rs and does not want Ben-Shabbat to get the job. Simultaneously, there is also a camp supporting him for the role. Many officials appear to respect all three candidates and prefer not to speak about the race, even off the record.
Then again, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin wanted to pick Yitzhak Ilan as his successor – and Netanyahu chose Yoram Cohen, who was generally well regarded despite the competition.
According to sources, there are three main issues with Ben-Shabbat. One is that he does not have enough operational field experience. Some call him a “paper man,” whose primary role is drafting important memoranda and undertaking research, but lacking field experience.
The paper man metaphor also refers to Ben-Shabbat’s talent with presenting analyses, but having more of a blind spot in rallying interpersonal relations and loyalty within the spy agency.
These critics admit he was head of the agency’s southern region, which approves operations in Gaza. However, they said he remained mostly in the office and missed some of the gritty details that one gleans in the field.
Supporters of Ben-Shabbat say he was involved in a long list of significant targeted killing operations, taking out arch-Hamas terrorists such as bomb-maker Salah Shehada as well as Hamas cofounders Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Ibrahim al-Muqadama and Ismail Abu Shanab.
They also note that he directed Shin Bet operations during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. Ben-Shabbat gets complimented for helping develop a singular new model for mixing the agency’s counterterrorism skills with IDF’s tactics to better match up against Hamas.
At one point during that war, with assistance from Shin Bet intelligence, Israeli forces managed to attack almost 100 targets in 20 minutes – an operation unheard of at that time.
Moreover, these supporters claim that even if Ben-Shabbat has not been a James Bond-like agent, he has carried out significant work in the handler/intelligence collections side of field work.
A second critique of Ben-Shabbat is that while he had served in multiple posts with the equivalent IDF rank of major-general, candidates to head the agency have usually served in specific higher-profile roles in the agency’s high command, particularly on the operations side.
According to these sources, this is critical to obtain a full and proper understanding of the agency’s diverse missions.
For example, some said that despite his strong experience with Gaza, he would be less prepared for the more nuanced efforts to reduce West Bank terrorism.
IDF soldiers searching in the West Bank for the terrorists who killed Rina Shnerb, August 2019. (IDF)
IDF soldiers searching in the West Bank for the terrorists who killed Rina Shnerb, August 2019. (IDF)
Backers of Ben-Shabbat dismiss such criticism as well as the idea that the West Bank is more complex than managing the Iranian nuclear threat or relations with powers like the US and Russia.
Ben-Shabbat supporters do not present him as someone focused on the West Bank. Yet they would also note that he does have relationships with Palestinians there, as well as with Egyptian officials with influence in the region.
And while some sources said that his promotion would reduce momentum on the positive trend of diverse training for top management, Ben-Shabbat supporters claim that the three top positions, including running operations against Hamas and cyber, are more than sufficient to prepare a candidate for the top role.
The third critique of Ben-Shabbat is that he is said to be too close to Netanyahu.
Officials conceded that there can be advantages when an agency head has strong personal connections with the prime minister. But they said the Shin Bet chief must also be able to stand up to the prime minister and say no to him when needed.
There was also criticism of Ben-Shabbat for accepting much of the administration of the country’s coronavirus response.
Some found his acceptance of this authority as far beyond the expertise and scope of what the NSC can manage, increasing concerns of an inability to reject bad ideas from Netanyahu.
They said that even if the NSC has a role in compiling ministerial views, it was always clear that in tandem the Defense Ministry and Health Ministry would need to handle the pandemic response. Ben-Shabbat’s continued grasp on these authorities helped Netanyahu improperly delay moving in that right direction, they said.
Supporters of Ben-Shabbat say it is utter nonsense that he is afraid to disagree with Netanyahu.
They note that he handles dozens of diverse of issues for the government and that he is extremely clear with the premier when he disagrees.
Furthermore, they stress that on national security issues, Netanyahu would toss a yes-man out on the second day of work.
In terms of being overly loyal to the prime minister, some note that the law defining the NSC makes it clear that unlike ministers, who may have their own ministerial agendas, his role is to serve and implement the prime minister’s policies.
Regarding the NSC managing the coronavirus crisis in the early stages, supporters said even as the Defense Ministry has taken a larger role, some authority must referee and coordinate between the Defense Ministry and other ministries. For example, the Defense Ministry cannot just order around the Health or Finance ministries.
Sources said the NSC’s role is to smooth over some of these tricky interministerial authority issues – and that even now the Health Ministry is setting strategy for the Defense Ministry to implement.
There have also been allegations that Ben-Shabbat, while still head of the Shin Bet’s southern division, pushed for the narrative that Bedouin teacher Yacoub Abu Elkian from the village of Umm al-Hiran was a terrorist, promoting the idea directly to senior ministers like Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri. This was done, they say, despite Police Investigation Department evidence to the contrary.
Supporters push back saying while it is unclear what information Ben-Shabbat might have passed on to Deri in his professional capacity as interior minister, the Shin Bet’s view at the time was inconclusive, but with potential evidence of a terrorism connection.
There is also Ben-Shabbat’s alleged political involvement. In 2018, the NSC chief was sent by Netanyahu to reel in the Yamina Party from leaving the coalition.
More specifically, he was sent to speak to Rabbi Haim Druckman – a leading rabbinic supporter of Yamina, who also happens to be related to Ben-Shabbat by marriage – to get Druckman to persuade Naftali Bennett’s party to stay in the coalition.
Traditionally, NSC officials deal only with security issues and do not intervene in politics. Previous NSC heads were very careful to stay away from Likud Party events or coalition issues.
Reports indicate that after the fact Ben-Shabbat realized the optics meant this was not a wise move and has avoided a repeat.
But supporters would add that as NSC chief, Ben-Shabbat was the correct authority to update Druckman about the impending operation to clear Hezbollah tunnels and other sensitive security issues.
Some officials said these examples permanently disqualified Ben-Shabbat, since the head of the Shin Bet must be unequivocally above partisan politics.
Argaman, these officials claim, has fulfilled his duty as head of the Shin Bet to implement Netanyahu’s decisions. But when he has had reservations, whether regarding annexation moves or using the Shin Bet to track civilians during the pandemic, he has not hesitated to express concern even if it meant losing capital with Netanyahu.
None of this is to say that Ben-Shabbat is not respected within Shin Bet circles: he is.
Even his critics acknowledge him as a brilliant strategist. They say he has an incisive ability to parse complex analytical issues and note that supervising operations against Hamas in Gaza is a serious role.
Ben-Shabbat is said to know the Palestinian sector and Arab analysis issues extremely well and to be capable of anticipating situations and unintended consequences that no one else foresees.
If the prime minister decides he wants the Shin Bet head to be more of a strategic adviser than an on-the-ground operator, Ben-Shabbat might be the best choice.
Like Ami Ayalon, who came from the navy, some say Ben-Shabbat’s time outside the organization could make it easier for him to make any necessary future transformative changes.
Backers of Ben-Shabbat add that serving as NSC chief to the prime minister has conveyed to Ben-Shabbat a wide perspective on and exposure to the world’s complex mix of national security and diplomacy.
They add that this allows anyone in such a role, including Ben-Shabbat, to understand the strategic environment where Israel operates at a deeper level.
All parties acknowledged that Ben-Shabbat would be an asset in communications with foreign countries.
In particular, both R’s lack experience with the political world.
Successfully representing the Shin Bet in the amorphous world of cabinet ministers who are also politicians and in competition with other major defense agencies would likely be much easier for Ben-Shabbat. He has spent three years in that tightrope-walking environment.
Moreover, the counterpoint of saying Ben-Shabbat was too close to Netanyahu is that such a close relationship could help the agency gain more resources and win in some standard interagency competitions.
For example, some sources said the Mossad has started to encroach on aspects of operations in Gaza since it is involved in blocking weapons-smuggling to the area.
This despite the fact that Gaza is traditionally shared territory of the Shin Bet and the IDF.
Responding to the successful model of Yossi Cohen moving from NSC chief to Mossad director, sources preferring the R’s as candidates noted that the Shin Bet is in some ways more sensitive than the Mossad because it deals with Israeli citizens.
They explained that part of the Shin Bet’s role is to sometimes spy on Israeli Jews or Arabs and that this makes being wholly separate from the prime minister’s politics even more crucial. Some were concerned Ben-Shabbat would handle this properly.
Sources added that Cohen stood on his own as a candidate for Mossad director before running the NSC, which would not have been true about Ben-Shabbat. Some say he was planning to retire without a shot of becoming Shin Bet deputy chief when Netanyahu called. But others say he might have spent some time in university studies, potentially biding his time for other opportunities.
Other than in the case of Ami Ayalon after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, the head of the Shin Bet in recent decades has been a former deputy chief.
Ben-Shabbat’s supporters claim that the NSC chief is arguably equal to, or even more influential than, the Shin Bet director – given his role in helping to manage the cabinet and the country’s overarching strategy.
They say that not all senior Shin Bet officials fully appreciate the complexities that Ben-Shabbat has encountered in his current role.
Still, if it is ultimately decided that the next Shin Bet chief must have served as a deputy, it would be between the two R’s.
In comparing the two R’s, some sources said the previous deputy has a bigger world view when it comes to technology, collection and analysis of intelligence.
Some also point out that the previous deputy was involved in large-scale operations, including in the 2014 Gaza war, which the current deputy has not quite had a chance to match.
In addition, some say the prior R is more beloved, inspiring more social cohesion among the rank and file than current R, and could be a compromise candidate between Netanyahu and the current Shin Bet leadership.
But prior R may have burned some bridges with an interview he gave to Channel 12’s Uvda following the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. He asserted the agency had warned the IDF and Netanyahu that Hamas was ready to fight, but was ignored.
This won him some enemies – including some who hold him responsible for failing to sound the alarm about Hamas loudly enough – and may have hurt him with Netanyahu.
Some also say that current R may be more charismatic and more of a stand-out talent in operations than prior R.
Furthermore, they posit that current R has filled in some of his inexperience with Shin Bet branches beyond the operations side by serving consecutively in the agency’s No. 2 and No. 3 roles. Both roles provide wide exposure to all Shin Bet branches.
Still, critics say he lacks Ben-Shabbat’s strategic acumen.
Some believe Argaman will press for the current R to succeed him since he was his handpicked deputy and both of them were shaped by deep experience in operations.
On the other hand, the final word on who runs the agency is in the hands of the prime minister.
There are virtually no scenarios in which Netanyahu would not remain prime minister through May 2021 when Argaman is due to step down.
Though Netanyahu is barred from making new appointments in the police or Justice Ministry due to his impending corruption trial, most believe this will not apply to the Shin Bet.
The agency does have some connection to law enforcement, but only regarding terrorism, never public corruption.
Technically, Netanyahu is also supposed to consult Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on major appointments and Gantz has made clear that he wants a say in who replaces the outgoing chief.
But it is not clear whether Gantz can legally or politically hold up Netanyahu’s pick for Shin Bet head in the event the two disagree.
Some think Gantz would try to block Ben-Shabbat’s appointment due to his closeness to the premier. But if Netanyahu insisted, it is not clear he could be stopped.
If the Palestinians launch a new wave of violence in response to Israel’s historic new peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain, some would argue for extending Argaman’s tenure until the violence is stopped, even if this is not the plan for now.
Others worry that the Shin Bet director appointment could be postponed due to infighting between the Likud and Blue and White. This could lead to weakening the agency or to a weaker acting director, as has happened with the police.
Whatever comes next, Argaman has certainly made his mark, and whoever succeeds him will need to work hard to fill his shoes.