Earlier this month, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer commented that Israel’s prowess in security and technology may enable to it to overtake Britain as America’s closest ally.
The ambassador’s comments came in response to a question about recent tensions in the US-Israeli friendship at a Washington conference held on May 1 by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, under the heading “The Middle East in Transition: Allies, Adversaries and Enemies.”
“Mark my words: Israel will be America's most important ally in the twenty-first century for two reasons: security and technology,” Dermer stated to much applause, and he continued to underline the shared values and interests that will boost the two countries’ security partnership in the coming decades.
The ambassador cited Israel’s high standing in the world of cyber security as evidence of its value to the US.
The country controls five percent of the international cyber market, although its population is one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population. Israel’s contribution to world cyber technology is equivalent to that of a nation of 400 million, the ambassador calculated.
Indeed, Israel has been dubbed the “Start-up Nation” for its unmatched rate of income, exports and employment in the high-tech sector, much of this in cyber technology.
Nonetheless, while the ambassador’s figures are in themselves accurate, their relative weight in the balance of power between the two countries bears further scrutiny.
DEBKA Weekly takes a closer look at this fast-growing field.
Israel’s thriving private cyber industry
According to IVC in consultation with KPMG – one of the world’s four largest accounting and research firms – Israel has 230 cyber security companies, half founded in the past two years. The country also boasts 20 research and development centers that specialize in securing information for leading foreign companies, including VMWare, RSA, GE, IBM, Paypal, Deutsche Telecom, Facebook, Microsoft and Google.
Israel has developed a thriving reputation for breakthroughs in private cyber security and information technology, mainly thanks to the veterans of the IDF’s intelligence and other security branches, like Check Point, who used their know how to found private firms.
Many of these firms maintain branches in Silicon Valley, or do much of their business in the US.
Eleven percent of all investment in the cyber field worldwide is raised by Israeli companies, a figure Dermer cited in Washington. Israel’s cyber exports are an estimated $3 billion annually, making up five percent of the world market.
Israel’s high-tech sector was responsible for 25 percent of Israel’s total business output in 2013, an impressive figure considering that high-tech employees account for just 8.4 percent of workers in the country’s businesses. This is considered a high percentage for Western countries.
With private and public investment in cyber security growing, Israeli can lay claim to the title of a world power in the field. But is it truly the equal of the US?
US is way ahead in cyber war capabilities
Cyber security involves setting up defenses against attacks on civilian infrastructure, and devising offensives against hostile targets.
DEBKA Weekly’s experts in the relatively new field of cyber warfare report that, when counted in terms of security and intelligence products for attack or defense – active or passive – and not just innovation – a general overview shows that Israel has a strong advantage.
However a nation’s technological and operational capabilities are not just measured in the number and size of private businesses in the field but rather by the capabilities of its academic community, industry and the range of operation of its security agencies.
In these terms, the US leaves the whole field behind by the sheer scale of the security cyber technology, resources and manpower at its disposal.
By any digital or cyber standard, the NSA and US Cyber Command reign supreme in their capabilities of interception, attack, defense, decoding and new products. Israel has much less manpower and financial resources to devote to cyber warfare. They are counted in just hundreds of experts employed in the 8200 Unit, the Military Intelligence branch specializing in the field.
Mossad’s specialist staff is even smaller.
US cyber partnership with Israel
Israel and the US have long maintained a fruitful collaboration in cyber warfare. The Stuxnet malworm that ravaged Iran’s enrichment facilities in 2010 was a notable example of their successful partnership. While both provided input for the project, it also demonstrated the imbalance between them, because “code production” addresses only the opening shot of a cyber campaign. The operating system – the spearhead of the attack (in the case of Stuxnet) – must then be planted inside the targeted computers after overcoming their firewalls – undetected!
This feat may be likened to a warplane stealthily penetrating an enemy’s air defenses unnoticed.
Bypassing cyber defenses may be as daunting a challenge as developing the malworm in the first place.
No less daunting is another facet of cyber war, which is to extract data from the target’s system and transfer it to the intelligence bodies which planted the intrusive virus for sorting and analysis.
This too must be achieved without leaving footprints of the intrusion.
Israel is certainly qualified to continue to act as America’s Middle East partner in cyber warfare technology, intelligence and operations. As Ambassador Dermer suggested, the Americans and Israelis will continue to team-up on the cyber battlefields of the future
And in fact, regular and in-depth exchanges are going strong between the Mossad and the NSA, with the accent on US Cyber Command, as well as between Israel Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 and comparable departments in the US armed forces.
Overstating Israel’s technology muscle
But this is a far cry from the ambassador’s implied advice to revise the balance of relations between the US and Israel and end its traditional unequal basis of superpower and relatively small ally, which defers to all its dictates. In other words, Israel should feel free to reject administration demands when it deems them detrimental to its vital interests.
Dermer is reputed to reflect the views of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and so his comments may be judged as reflecting a departure in Israeli state policy, a change which if confirmed deserves to be seriously addressed in the light of the facts.
America’s technological, financial, and scientific strength is unchallenged and it is combined with an awareness of the dangers of cyber warfare and the ability to make the requisite investment of national resources in the technology for retaining this superiority
That is one fact. Another of those facts is that while, in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s cyber experts, the US needs technological, intelligence and operational allies, it does not depend on them – with one exception: The four fields of military, security, intelligence and cyber technologies in which Israel’s pre-eminence is recognized and used by America: In all four, Israel has pulled ahead of its rivals, including America, in scientific innovations.
Of course, the US may choose to take advantage of these assets – or not. Until now, one US administration after another has made good use of their availability, using them to climb to unrivalled world standing in this most sensitive sphere.
What Dermer (and therefore Netanyahu) appear to be implying is that more such cyber technological innovations were still in the Israeli pipeline.
But although Israel contributes to US technological preponderance in important fields, to suggest that it has gained parity with America overstates Israel’s case and places an untruth at the heart of the dialogue between the two countries.