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Politics, Terrorism and Cyberattacks: The Challenges Facing Israel's New Shin Bet Chief

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Outgoing Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in July.
Outgoing Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in July.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has named the current deputy director of the Shin Bet security service as the domestic security agency’s new director, pending the approval of the committee that vets all senior public service appointments and the cabinet. Bennett announced the appointment Wednesday.

The appointee’s full name and photograph are prohibited from publication until the confirmation process is completed. Until then, he will be known only as R.

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In his new role, R. will face at least three main challenges: maintaining the Shin Bet’s independent and apolitical status; preventing an escalation of terrorism against Israel, chiefly Palestinian terrorism; and thwarting espionage and cyberattacks.

In addition, the Shin Bet will probably have to take, grudgingly, a growing role in combating violent crime and widespread illegal gun ownership in Arab communities in Israel.

All recent Shin Bet directors have contended with the issue of the agency’s official status and the boundaries of its authority and activities. But it seems that the job of Nadav Argaman, the outgoing director, was the hardest, for two reasons: the constant friction with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his last years in office, and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

Netanyahu may have focused his fight, given his legal troubles, on the police and prosecutors, but more than once he caused collateral damage to the rest of the gatekeepers, including the heads of the security forces. The Shin Bet is the most sensitive of these organizations, since its activities during times of emergency, such as preventing terrorism or espionage, involve the use of advanced technologies that by necessity severely violate privacy and civil rights.

Unlikely gatekeeper

Argaman was often required to act as a gatekeeper of democracy, a role that became even more complicated in February 2020, when the pandemic came to Israel. He fought a losing battle against using the Shin Bet to monitor Israeli citizens. The agency was unable to completely prevent the use of its technologies for contact tracing, but its determined opposition shortened the duration of their use, which was discontinued at the start of 2021.

Senior Shin Bet officials had feared that Netanyahu would appoint then-National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat as Argaman’s successor before leaving office. Ben-Shabbat, who previously served as head of the Shin Bet’s Southern Region, among other positions in the agency, has had an illustrious career, but his great closeness to Netanyahu – who was already fighting for his political life and trying to avoid prosecution – led some to question whether he would be able to maintain boundaries as successfully as Argaman did. Netanyahu’s insistence on assigning Ben-Shabbat to missions with a political hue only added to these fears. It never would have happened with Argaman, or with his two deputies. In any case, the issue is now moot.

Counterterrorism

The Shin Bet is at the forefront in thwarting Palestinian terrorism. Israel’s success in ending previous waves of terror and above all the second intifada is chiefly the result of the intelligence and preventative activities led by the agency. The situation on the Palestinian front is far from quiet today: The cease-fire in the Gaza Strip is unstable. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is losing its grip and constantly battling subversion by Hamas, which seeks to escalate anti-Israel terrorism.

The scene of a West Bank shooting attack in May.Credit: Moti Milrod

Counterespionage

The fast-moving world of counterespionage, meanwhile, is increasingly dominated by technology rather than the traditional methods involving spies and informants.

So far Israel has been able to limit the harm caused by cyberattacks, but the number of actors in this arena is growing and their motivations shifting. In addition to contending with Iran and terrorist organizations, Israel also faces intelligence gathering by countries such as China and possibly even industrial-defense espionage by allies. The Shin Bet is on the front lines in this battle, together with organizations such as the Israel Defense Forces and the National Cyber Directorate. This often leads to severe interagency battles.

Violent crime

When it comes to Israel’s Arab communities, for several decades the Shin Bet has preferred to focus on combating terrorism rather than taking on policing duties. But the epidemic of illegal gun possession and use in many of these communities, and the large number of homicides – over 80 since the beginning of the year – have increased the pressure on the agency to increase its involvement in gathering intelligence there. Some of the pressure is a result of a spillover into Jewish communities of the crime in their Arab counterparts. The situation is so desperate that some Arab politicians are publicly demanding that the Shin Bet intervene, something that was totally taboo just a year or two ago. It seems that the Shin Bet under R. will also have to deal with this.

Argaman was considered to be a stubborn, and sometimes even inflexible, man who stood on principle and his professional opinions, and would confront politicians and other senior security officials in order to protect the Shin Bet’s position and focus on its core missions. Argaman carried out many organizational reforms. He will leave behind a faster, more purposeful organization that takes the offensive against terrorism and espionage and is much less bureaucratic than it was before he became the agency’s director in 2016.

In many respects R. would seem to be Argaman’s natural successor. He will need to maintain the two most prominent hallmarks of Argaman’s tenure: remaining above the fray and on the attack during a frenetic era that will certainly include surprises and new threats.

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