The Sounds Of Silent Sirens

Israel’s military intelligence between providing actionable insights – news you can use – and pointing out one’s own part in the process

Amir Oren

His name, Dror Shalom, reflects the two basic aspirations of Israel – liberty and peace. “To be a free people in our country,” as the national anthem phrased the wish when it seemed far from reach.

At 49, Brigadier-General Shalom has just relinquished one of the most important posts in Israel. It is nominally four echelons below the Prime Minister, working for the PM and the entire security cabinet, the Defense Minister, the Chief of the General Staff and the Director of Military Intelligence. But in practice, for almost five years, under three Directors, two IDF chiefs, four Ministers and one Benjamin Netanyahu, BG Shalom was both the chef and waiter of Israeli intelligence, responsible for his customers neither starving from too little nor choking on too much.

Shalom’s job has the outdated title “chief, research division” in the intelligence branch. Sounds like a think tank or academic institution and a throwback to an old distinction between the collection and assessment functions of military – which in Israel’s constant wartime means national – intelligence. It is actually the most central hub of intelligence for policy makers and military commanders. It absorbs raw products from every source, priortizes collection efforts, analyzes, concludes, publishes, distributes, alerts.

This last task is always its first duty, to give edgy Israel early warning of attack – fullscale war, missile barrage, terror act – but beware of being too alarmist. Israel can easily take care of any passing crisis on its borders, but if the need arises to mobilize reserves, with no end in sight, civilian economy could soon grind to a halt. One must be quite sure there is reason enough to sound the silent siren. It takes intellectual integrity and guts, especially with the Yom Kippur War experience hanging over military intelligence, which was pinned with an unjustified chunk of the blame for complacency and cost. It all comes down, much like modern logistics, to warning just in time rather than just in case.

The 800 officers and NCO’s in Shalom’s shop, with six ir seven Colonels reporting to him, juggle three concurrent missions. They have to be up to the minute on what’s happening with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and lesser but still very important targets, Turkey included. Longer-range, they must be on top of trends regionally – in stated, organizations and populations – and globally (identifying the Covid-19 danger to Israel early and often). Lastly, they must step down from the ivory tower of philosophy and high-policy to the nitty-gritty of targeting the enemy, for the next limited exchange of rockets and bombs and more significantly for a war Israel may not be able to prevent, should its adversaries be determined to launch it.

Organizationally, it means that this division, roughly the equivalent of a Joint Staff J-2, is a member of the most effective trio in the IDF, along with J-3 (the General Staff operations shop) and A-3 (Air Force operations). These three major cogs in the machinery filter and drive every significant contingency plan and current activity. Within the military intelligence branch, Shalom’s division seamlessly interacts with collection agencies for Sigint (8200, Israel’s NSA), Visint, Humint and open source. It has good interface with MOSSAD, Internal Security (Shabak), the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

And because in Shalom’s view the division leadershio should be a professional intelligence officer’s last pre-retirement position, with no prospects for promotion and a temptation to please superiors, it can provide highers-up the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, through its unbiased perspective. Under Yossi Cohen, who does not hide his personal ambition to join the politicsl fray when he retired next year, the Mossad chief has become suspect of ulterior motives. Not so military intelligence, where Shalom’s boss, Major-General Tamir Hayman, is as unassuming and straight-forward as he is, pursuing a career where the most coveted next stop could be command of the Lebanon-Syria or Gaza fronts. They both knew that with Aviv Kochavi for IDF chief, as a former bold and innovative Director of Military Intelligence, they have an audience who is well versed as they are.

As for the content of their assessments – they sometimes differ, with Hayman bringing Shalom with him to the decision tables to present the other view – it seems that they are in general optimistic regarding Israel’s balance of risks and prospects. There is no existential threat to Israel, not even from Iran, though it should be monitored and a response prepared should it break out towards nuclear weapons in two years time. Hassan Nasrallah and Yahia Sanwar, in Hezbollah and Hamas respectively, are shrewd and persistent enemies, yet their interests point them towards a more pragmatic behavior towards Israel.

The upshot is that military intelligence is mature enough to understand that Israel’s actions impact other player’s reactions and that the so-called researchers should point out ahead of an operation in the undeclared campaign against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and trans-shipment of precision guided munitions to Lebanon that it could tip the scale and trigger an escalation. Shalom’s job, now left to his successor who wrote a Defense College thesis on “Preventing Wars Nobody Wants”, was to warn the operators and politicians that this could be one straw too many – or alternstively, to bolster the camel and stiffen its back, so it would not break under this straw.

An inherent danger, when an intelligence officer crosses the line from forwarding a screen-shot to tweeting his view, is that he will fall in love with his bets and cheer his side to win. But if one is aware ot that and factors it in, it seems a smaller price than that paid – from Yom Kippur to 9/11 – for the walls between intelligence, operations and policy, as long as the siren button is pushed when the “Blue” side, one’s own, is about to make as dangerous a move as “Red”.