A plan to relocate some 19,000 soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence division to a base in the Negev region, and gradually turn the area into an Israeli Silicon Valley, has been stalled by the refusal of many career officers to make the move.
Intelligence units, including the famed 8200 unit, were supposed to begin moving this year to the new facilities, marking what was supposed to be the fourth phase of a giant undertaking by the army to relocate many of its key divisions to the region from Israel’s center.
The government has already spent 300 million shekels ($85 million) laying the groundwork for the new facility located at the Shilat Junction east of Be’er Sheva, the biggest city in the Negev.
No officers have gone on strike or refused to work, but the last two heads of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, both have reached the conclusion that the move will cause a large number of career officers in the unit to leave the army.
Internal surveys conducted by the IDF have confirmed this, finding that many officers don’t want to live in the Negev or make the daily commute from their homes in the greater Tel Aviv area. The relocation plans are making it harder for the army to compete with the private sector to retain the best officers.
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“It’s not nice to have to change a program because of a few people, but we’re talking about people who are in big demand in the private market and they can easily leave [the army],” said one senior government official who asked not to be named. “You have to understand that the IDF’s biggest edge is the air force and intelligence, so we have to manage this properly so that intelligence isn’t in any way harmed.”
Officers in other army units are used to having to move to different parts of the country during their careers, but in intelligence this is much less frequently the case. The main military intelligence operations, including 8200, are based at Glilot outside Tel Aviv, where the shopping and entertainment options are abundant.
Be’er Sheva has its mall and cinema as well as a major medical center, university and high-tech park. But many officers regard the move as a worsening of the work conditions, even though the facilities at Shilat Junction will be state of the art, while the buildings they work in now in some cases date to the British Mandate.
In recent months government officials have held talks with the heads of the army and Defense Ministry officials in an effort to solve the problem.
Among the problems that have been cited is the lack of public transportation to the area. In response, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon offered to allocate 100 million shekels for planning a railroad and later 2.4 billion to construct it, saying he sees the money as part of a broader investment in the Negev region. The IDF is now examining the idea, but in the meantime Kochavi has another one – to build the intelligence facility at the northern part of Be’er Sheva instead of east of the city. That would give it access to public transportation and cut driving times for those who come by car.
Officials are divided on this, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam opposed, as is Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich also opposes the alternative because it would block further northerly development of the city and create traffic jams.
“Moving the intelligence facility to another place would delay everything by five years. Military intelligence is too pampered and wants to stay in Herzilya and Glilot – the good life in the center of the country,” complained one source involved in the talks, who asked not to be named.
Danilovich is also worried that relocating the base will delay the move and frustrate his plans, which he shares with Netanyahu, to turn Be’er Sheva into a cybersecurity-oriented technology center in conjunction with the IDF. He is counting on that to raise the city’s socioeconomic profile.
But the idea has support from Eli Groner, director of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Prof. Avi Simhon, who heads the National Economic Council.
Moving military intelligence down south is the last of four phases in the broader IDF relocation to the Negev. The first two phases, moving the air force to the Nevatim Air Base as well as army training facilities to the Negev Junction, have been completed. The Signal Corps is supposed to follow later this year.
As well as clearing land in the crowded center and giving the army the most modern facilities, the IDF move was aimed at helping the Negev region economically by creating high-quality jobs and bringing private sector business there.
In that context, Military Intelligence is expected to play a key role, since its graduates are disproportionately responsible for starting up high-tech companies after they leave the army.