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The Israeli Intelligence Community: An Insider’s View -- Book Review

The Israeli Intelligence Community: An Insider's View
by Ephraim Lapid
Gefen Publishing House, 2020
Paperback, 272 pages
$29.95 from Gefen or $28 plus $5.95 shipping from Amazon
Reviewed by Shlomo Liberman

Brig. Gen. (Res) Dr. Ephraim Lapid is in a unique position to write about the Israeli intelligence community. He served in leading capacities in the IDF Intelligence Unit, was IDF spokesperson, a member of the senior forum of the General Staff, commander of Galei Zahal and an instructor at the National Security College. Nowadays he teaches Political Science at Bar-Ilan university and represents Israel at various international conferences dealing with intelligence and security.

Lapid recounts the history of Israel's intelligence establishment, including the inner considerations for changing the structure and leadership at various points of time in the 1950s and 1960s. He describes in detail the main elements of intelligence gathering, SIGINT (Signal Intelligence), VISINT (Visual Intelligence), and HUMINT (Human Intelligence) and how they evolved in the IDF. In the early 1950s, Israel consolidated a comprehensive security concept comprised of three elements: deterrence, early-warning, and overbalance. At the basis was the realization that Israel was inherently inferior to its neighbors in numbers and needed to rely on military strength.

One of the most important elements was to have an early-warning system to prevent being taken by surprise. This was clearly realized after the so-called "Rotem affair" in early 1960, when Egypt managed to move over 500 tanks into Sinai without being detected by the IDF intelligence units until after the fact. At the time, it did not lead to war, because both Israel and Egypt kept it secret due to strong censorship, until Egypt withdrew its forces after US mediation.

Another important element was the concept of pre-emptive strikes to minimize casualties in a defensive war, which Israel utilized to the fullest in the Six-Day-War of 1967.

A special section details how the intelligence community dealt with the terrorist organizations. An especially interesting part covers an operational plan code-named Isotope, which dealt with how to handle the situation of a hijacked airplane. This was first put to the test in 1972 when four terrorists hijacked a Sabena airplane en route from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv. The hijackers were overpowered by a special team from Sayeret Matkal, the commando unit of the General Staff, headed by Ehud Barak, who later became Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Other members included the current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Danni Yatom, who became head of the Mossad, and Uzi Dayan, who became Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF.

Lapid doesn't refrain from describing intelligence failures, especially leading up to the Yom Kippur war in October 1973.

A drawback of any book on intelligence is that, due to secrecy rules, it cannot deal with events for decades. The book tries to compensate for this inherent deficiency by adding an afterword by Brig. Gen. (Res) Yossi Kuperwasser entitled Israeli Intelligence in the 2020s which reviews the challenges facing Israeli intelligence today. Kuperwasser was previously head of the military intelligence research division (AMAN) and Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Currently, he is a Senior Project Manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), specializing in the security dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An appendix, titled Time Line of Intelligence Events written by Brig. Gen. (ret) Amos Gilboa, lists all important intelligence events from 1948 up to December 2018. Gilboa was head of IDF intelligence analysis in the 1970-80s and upon retirement remained involved as an adviser in intelligence affairs to the Israeli intelligence community and to several prime ministers and defense ministers. He also taught at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and wrote a column for the Maariv newspaper. He published several books, notably one on the Karine-A arms smuggling boat operated by the Palestinian Authority in cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah and which was captured by Israel in open sea on January 2002. Amos Gilboa died unexpectedly at the age of 81 on Dec. 28, 2020 after a short deterioration of health.

A highly recommended book for anyone interested in matters of intelligence and security. 



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