The Challenges Facing Israel's New Shin Bet Chief: Knives, Tunnels, and ISIS Propaganda

When asked recently what issue keeps him awake at night, new security service chief replied that it’s the possibility of Hamas carrying out a large-scale surprise attack. It’s now his job to keep that from happening.

New Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman.
Ilan Assayag

Who said Benjamin Netanyahu never learns? Instead of his usual practice of waiting until the last minute, leaving the candidates on edge until the last second and creating fruitful ground for conspiracy theories, the prime minister decided to announce his choice of a new head of the Shin Bet security service in good time. Nadav Argaman, who recently returned for a second term as deputy head of the agency, will replace incumbent Yoram Cohen in mid-May.

The choice is not surprising. Argaman had been nearly a sure bet since being called back to replace deputy head Roni Alsheich, now police commissioner.

Argaman’s relatively smooth appointment contrasts with that of the new Mossad chief, which was announced at a live-broadcast media briefing that was delayed by an hour, and of the previous Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs five years ago, when rumors of last-minute decisions abounded. And if the announcement also pushed the legal victory by the Netanyahus’ former caretaker out of the evening headlines, so much the better for Netanyahu standpoint.

Argaman’s appointment isn’t expected to make waves in the Shin Bet or lead to a round of resignations by senior agency officials; he’ll provide continuity and stability. Cohen openly supported Argaman as his successor, and once Alsheich was out of the picture, no other candidate from within the agency could match Argaman’s experience and seniority. Nor, it seems, did Netanyahu ever consider an appointment from outside the agency.

Netanyahu doesn’t like changes in his work environment, and he would apparently have been happy to extend Cohen’s five-year term by another year. But Cohen made it clear he wasn’t interested, paving the way for Argaman’s appointment.

Argaman, 55, grew up in Kibbutz Hamadia in the Beit She’an Valley (so at least this time, we’ll be spared the weeping and wailing about how religious Zionists are ostensibly taking over the top ranks of the security services). He did his military service in an anonymous elite unit, and in 1983, soon after being demobilized, he joined the Shin Bet.

He spent over 20 years in the operations department, in various positions, and became its head in 2003, at the height of the second intifada. During his four years in this role, he oversaw hundreds of counterterrorism operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as counterespionage operations within Israel. He was also responsible for overseeing assassinations of wanted terrorists.

He then served four years as the agency’s head of security in the United States, with responsibility for protecting Israel’s embassy and consulates, before returning to Israel to spend three years as deputy Shin Bet chief under Cohen. In 2014, Alsheich replaced him and he was loaned for a year to the Atomic Energy Commission. But after Alsheich’s surprise appointment as police commissioner, Argaman returned to his old job as deputy Shin Bet head.

Unusually, Argaman didn’t come up through the Shin Bet’s Palestinian affairs department, as all but two Shin Bet chiefs of the past 30 years have; instead, he spent most of his career in the operations department. But the challenges facing Argaman are more varied than those that confronted previous Shin Bet chiefs, and he has expertise in many of them, including special operations, cyber security and contacts with foreign defense and intelligence agencies. MK Avi Dichter (Likud), a former Shin Bet chief who knows Argaman’s work record well, told Haaretz on Thursday that he was the best possible choice.

The first challenge facing Argaman will be the upsurge in Palestinian terror that began in October, along with the concern that this escalation will spark another war in Gaza. When asked recently what issue keeps him awake at night, he replied that it’s the possibility of Hamas carrying out a large-scale surprise attack from Gaza. It’s the Shin Bet’s job, in cooperation with Military Intelligence, to keep that from happening.

The two agencies are also trying to find some way to identify lone-wolf terrorists before they strike, as these have accounted for the vast majority of the attacks of the last few months. Until now, the security services have failed utterly at this task. In the best cases, these lone-wolf stabbers and car-rammers will expend their “ammunition” on soldiers or policemen before they reach any civilians. In the worst cases, the first anyone knows about them is after they have already attacked a civilian.

Another challenge is the impact Islamic State propaganda is having both in the territories and among Arab Israelis. The most prominent recent example is Nashat Melhem, the terrorist from Wadi Ara who murdered three civilians in Tel Aviv on January 1. But the “Islamic State effect” has already led about 70 Israeli Arabs to join jihadist militias in Syria, and in the last 10 days alone, there have been three knife attacks by Arab Israelis (two in Ramle and one in Rahat).

The Shin Bet has begun trying to improve its intelligence among Arab Israelis, but this is a complex task that requires exercising great caution to avoid infringing on their rights as citizens.

Two other critical issues on the agency’s agenda are the danger of further attacks by Jewish terrorists and the growing threat of cyberterror.