For Israel's Elite Army Intel Unit, Errors of the Past Send a Spying Eye Into the Future

Mideast unrest, known as the Arab Spring before coming to a screeching halt in Syria, has forced the research department of the IDF General Staff's Intelligence Division to retool its thinking.

Recent turmoil in the Middle East, for which the name "Arab Spring" has long seemed inappropriate, stressed Israel's pressing need to better understand its whereabouts. Intelligence specialists, similarly to pundits in the media and academia, may have identified some of the early signs, but didn't predict the earthquake's timing, force, and consequences. Aside from the unbelievable pace of events (until the revolution came to a screeching halt on Syria's bloody streets), the jolt also required a fundamental change in the way intelligence is assessed.

When the regimes all around were, to varying degrees, dictatorships, then most of what the Military Intelligence (MI) had to do was to hone in on the map atop the pyramid, along with a small group of generals, advisors, and family members. Tahrir Square changed all that. Suddenly intelligence officials are speaking of nations, public opinion, and social networks.

MI  - Alon Ron
Alon Ron

A considerable part of that challenge is being handled by a not-too-big group of mostly young, extraordinarily intelligent researchers at the research department of the IDF General Staff's Intelligence Division. But, in recent years, it seems that some of the most influential, fascinating jobs the MI has to offer have been losing their aura. While it's too early to speak of a recruitment problem, the research department is finding it harder and harder to fill its ranks from its limited pool of conscripts.

One major opponent is 8200, considered the MI's "central gathering unit." The fact that not too many people know what exactly 8200, and its many offshoots, does neither improves or decreases its standing. The combination of geniuses, technology, as well as a long line of unit veterans who have gone on to start or lead successful high-tech firms is enough to draw the upper echelons of those qualified to join. Another difficulty faced by the research department is retaining some of its outstanding officers, especially those past lieutenant and captain, for whom the lure of the civilian world seems too great to ignore.

That's probably why MI chief Aviv Kokhavi decided to hold a first-of-its-kind meeting between of the department's top researchers and media representatives. Ten officers, including three female officers, and one soldier, all ages 20 to 30 something, were rounded up in a conference room at one of the IDF's charmless buildings in Tel Aviv. All of them came up in the MI's various units. A few served for a while in field positions as well. Some went to school as part of the Academic Atuda [a military program allowing army recruits to attend university before their service in exchange for serving as officers in their field of expertise]. They are all very eloquent and seem very knowledgeable in their prospective fields, which include everything from Iranian politics, to economics, to rocket and missile development in the Gaza Strip.

Colonel D., the department's deputy head of estimation, told Haaretz: "We get the best over here, and we still want to improve and bolster the department's standing. A lot is required from a good researcher: cognitive ability, teamwork, forward thinking, eloquence, argumentation, creativity. We don't have enough media coverage to draw all the recruits we want. And still, if there's someone with  qualifications we requirethat wants to serve in the Paratroopers Brigade, I'll tell him to go there. And, by the way, that's exactly what happened with the IDF chief of staff's son" (Benny Gantz's son recently left a MI position for Paratroopers' boot camp).

In the past, many of the researchers were graduates of the universities Middle East departments. Today, it has physics and math graduates, since "the honors dynamics leads them there as soon as high school, and since research requires analytical thinking."

Regional unrest dictated the adoption of new working methods. "The light beams are directed at where the coin's at, but the Middle East is changing, and so we need new searchlights. We're trying to develop new conceptions that would allow wider outlook, more real time monitoring," D. said.

Captain Keren, who researches Hezbollah, is impressed by the ability to get a deep look into the enemy's hidden areas. "[Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah's speeches may seem belligerent, but when you understand the interior happenings you can get a fuller picture. A few days ago he spoke, while we knew that a Hezbollah terrorist was arrested for planning a bombing in Thailand, but the story was not published yet. So, he's talking, and I'm thinking the discomfort he's expecting."

Major Ophir discussed the advantages of younger researchers, faced with regional events. "The people going out to Tahrir Square are our age. That world is being conducted in provinces and concepts which we feel more exposed to."

Last year, the section headed by another Keren, a major specializing in terror research, aided in the capture of the "Victoria" ship, which was running arms from Iran to the Gaza Strip. "There's some tension," she said. "The mind's dealing with it all the time, even when you're picking up the kids from kindergarten. But, you get a phone at 9 P.M. and go back to the office, the family knows it's not about gratifying myself. When an inspection of the 'Victoria' found the missiles we estimated would be there it took me some time to remember that it meant the disruption of a the kind of threat which killed a relative of my husband's in the Second Lebanon War [on board the INS Hanit].

Lieutenant Yonatan spoke of a "huge increase in the Palestinian ability to develop self-made rockets in Gaza. Ultimately, what you need to do is to bring in a coordinate that's a target for decision makers. One of the challenges its the assimilation of the arms industry within the civilian population. You see a man who produces weapons in the bottom floor, with his entire family living above him, and it can go at any moment. We need a lot of information and precision. For a site to become a target and enter the target bank, it needs to be approved by about ten commanders."

The head of the MI's research department, Brigadier General Itay Baron, said  "we're placing a huge weight of responsibility on the researchers. If they don't understand something, we won't know what's happening. What I expect them to say is what they think, to create a debate that will confront their views with other opinions, to allow us to better review reality."

It's impossible to ignore the trauma of 1973's Yom Kippur War during the uncommon visit to the research department. At colonel D.'s room, hangs a familiar picture in a prominent place. It displays the heads of the research department during a mundane meeting, shortly before the war broke out. All those names and titles are woven into the pages of the Agarnat Report and in the countless books that followed. D. thought there's wasn't any need to much explanation. The picture was there as a reminder of the duty's weighty responsibility, and of the possible consequences of a mistake. "A few years ago I served at the Syria branch and it was the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Not much can be said: the chills get a hold on you."