The Tiny Team That Tells Israeli Leaders What the Future Is Likely to Bring

The Intelligence Ministry’s Horizon Scanning desk examines global trends to make sure the country isn’t caught flat-footed in a rapidly changing world

Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman
Canadian research ship in Antarctica
Canadian research ship in AntarcticaCredit: REUTERS
Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman

For the last year and a half, a small team in Israel’s Intelligence Affairs Ministry has been tasked with an unusual assignment: Look beyond the day-to-day news and developments and figure out what are the key long-term trends affecting the entire planet.

The idea is not to predict where Israel can or should be in one or two years, but in a decade or more.

The unit’s horizon-scanning involves systematically monitoring huge numbers of information sources and indicators to identify patterns and so-called weak signals of coming disruptions that could have an important, even transformative, impact on the world in the decades ahead.

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It means looking for trends that haven’t yet become fully observable, or at least haven’t attracted much attention.

Unlike most government intelligence-gathering activities, which are focused on security issues, the Horizon Scanning desk focuses on civilian trends. The idea is to give civilian ministries insights based on a much broader perspective than they usually have – ideally giving Israel a competitive edge by being the first to know.

To glean insights, the team gathers reams of information from all the other ministries, explained Chagai Tzuriel, the Intelligence Ministry’s director general. The Horizon Scanning team, which is headed by Victor Israel, analyzes it and produces insights, which are shared with the ministries and passed up to the prime minister and other decision makers.

Tzuriel and Israel bring to the operation decades of experience in defense-related intelligence. Tzuriel, who has been director general of the ministry for three years, worked in the Mossad for 27 years, during which he was head of research and the agency’s representative in the United States.

Israel spent many years in army intelligence and held the rank of lieutenant colonel. After that he worked in the state-owned defense company Rafael. He joined the Intelligence Ministry two years ago as head of research.

The papers produced by the team are not classified so that as many government officials as possible can make use of them, but the team itself is shrouded in secrecy, including the number of staff and its budget.

In any event, it is not big. The ministry itself employs only 20 people and has a budget of under 10 million shekels.

The Horizon Scanning desk currently relies on a tool called GeoQuant, which was developed by an Israeli startup for the financial services industry to detect trends in government policy, regulations, business and politics. It compiles all the data and ranks countries for risk.

But Israel noted that the program is designed for investors and doesn’t meets all of the desk’s needs, so it is now working with a Defense Ministry team to develop in-house tools. It also plans to recruit data scientists who can analyze big data more effectively.

Tzuriel and Israel believe that as the desk’s insights become increasingly recognized, it will be given more resources. This has already started happening.

In spite of its limited resources, the Horizon Scanning team plays a critical role: a forum of 40 top officials from all branches of the government meet every two months to discuss its conclusions. The idea behind getting so many people together is to share insights from a wide range of perspectives.

“The last meeting of the forum focused on artificial intelligence,” said Tzuriel. “This is an area where the private sector is leading the way, but it needs direction from the government, something that is now on many countries’ agendas. We showed the forum participants how the world’s superpowers – but also smaller countries like Finland and South Korea – were setting the agenda.”

If analyzing AI trends sounds too obvious, the secret often lies not so much in the trends themselves, but in the way they intersect. The Horizon Scanning team recently built a map that does just that. “You discover very quickly that the most interesting places are the meeting points between trends,” said Israel.

Take, for example, globalization, a process that has been under way since the late 1970s and has brought the countries of the world closer together economically, politically and culturally.

As the Horizon Scanning desk sees it, globalization has had the positive effect of lifting hundreds of millions of people in the developing world out of poverty and illiteracy. But is has also exacerbated another megatrend of rising inequality between countries and within countries.

The technology revolution is another megatrend which has not only changed the way people communicate but has contributed to another megatrend, climate change, in a fundamental way by making it easier and cheaper to exploit natural resources. Climate change has caused growing migration from the developing world to the developed world, prompting a nationalist backlash from the latter.

Technology also intersects with what the Horizon Scanning desk calls the new inequality, creating a gap between those who benefit more from it than others. Another trend is the growing strains between the establishment and ordinary people, not just the government but all institutions, which is linked to globalization and technology trends.

“When you look at the trends, you see the laws of physics at work – every action receives a response, and every pressure that is exerted is resisted. There was globalization and there is anti-globalization,” said Israel.

One central operational conclusion that arises from all this is a new megatrend that the Horizon Scanning desk calls the competition for supremacy. This is the struggle between the established global powers and the emerging forces around the world about how they will factor in the new world order.

“In contrast to the struggles that have existed to date, today there’s a consensus between all the great powers, smaller countries and the private sector that we are facing technological breakthroughs that will fundamentally change our lives,” said Tzuriel. “Those who lead will be in control, but the competition is not just about technological issues.”

Where does the State of Israel stand is this competition? The two note that even though it is surrounded by hostile powers, its technology capabilities give it a major strategic asset.

“Israel has great capabilities and great advantages in many areas, which means there’s potential for cooperation with countries in the region, for example in the fields of water, agriculture and health,” said Tzuriel. “Part of our message to the ministries is that there is an extraordinary opportunity here for cooperation.”

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