Swords of Iron

Israel’s Intelligence Agencies and Military Need More Civilian Oversight

The failures of Israel’s intelligence community to learn of the coordinated Hamas assault on Oct. 7 and prevent it underscores the need for comprehensive reforms to Israel’s intelligence community.

In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission—set up to probe the Al Qaeda attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001—proposed sweeping changes to the U.S. intelligence community, including the creation of a new role, the director of national intelligence (DNI).

The role was not just another bureaucratic title; it was envisioned as a linchpin of American security, created to coordinate between the 17 different American intelligence agencies and to implement a holistic vision for how the intelligence community needed to operate. With cabinet-level authority and access, the DNI has a great deal of influence over the president and U.S. policy when it comes to matters of intelligence and national security.

The failures of Israel’s intelligence community to learn of the coordinated Hamas assault on Oct. 7 and prevent it underscores the need for comprehensive reforms to Israel’s intelligence community. One of the ways to fix this would be the establishment of a civilian-led organization that oversees the work of the Israeli intelligence community, which currently operates with very little coordination.

Israel’s intelligence landscape is made up of a trio of powerhouses: Military Intelligence in the IDF, which is meant to provide tactical intelligence for units but also strategic intelligence for the government in its role as the “national assessor”; the Mossad which is Israel’s equivalent of the CIA and runs espionage operations overseas; and the Shin Bet, responsible for collecting intelligence on the Palestinian territories and thwarting attacks from there.

In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973—the country’s last great intelligence debacle —the Mossad, the Shin Bet and even the Foreign Ministry established their own research and analysis branches, but in practice this did not change much. Military Intelligence still retains a monopoly over intelligence collection and its analysis, a result of being the biggest organization by far, and having far more assets like satellites and Israel’s cyber systems for the gathering of intelligence.

Another problem is the dispersion of responsibility over the intelligence agencies. Military Intelligence is under the control of Israel’s defense minister while the Mossad and the Shin Bet fall under the authority of the prime minister. While the intelligence chiefs are meant to meet regularly to coordinate operations as well as intelligence analysis, there is built in tension and competition between the agencies, and without one clear boss, this is not always easy to defuse.

One of the failures that led to Hamas’s successful attack on Oct. 7 and the ensuing massacre of more than 1,200 people, was the intelligence community’s misreading of Hamas’s intentions. Heads of the intelligence agencies—primarily in Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet—believed that Hamas was deterred, was not interested in war and therefore, paid little attention to what the terrorist leaders were openly saying.

An Israeli civilian DNI who oversees all the intelligence agencies and provides critical oversight has the ability to challenge misconceptions that create strategic blindness like that which led to Oct. 7. An Israeli DNI can coordinate between the agencies, ensure that each is working to complement the other and that all are working holistically and not as competitors.

But this is only one part of the solution. Another critical reform would be to increase civilian and parliamentary oversight of the Israel Defense Forces, its procurement plans, and the way it makes operational decisions.

Amid Israel’s entrenched military ethos, fueled by compulsory service, the notion of civilian oversight has often been met with skepticism, if not outright resistance. The result has been a difficulty in people accepting a non-general to serve as defense minister or in any role with national security implications.

Photo by Yossi Zeliger/TPS

One recent example was last week when Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a politician with limited military experience, announced that he would not approve an IDF request to purchase a new batch of fighter jets requested by the Israeli Air Force.

Smotrich said he would approve the request only after a committee was established to review the defense budget and how it is spent. The minister explained that in wake of Oct. 7, he was not willing to serve as a rubber stamp and simply sign off on requests just because they were made by the IDF.

Smotrich has a point. The IDF and Israeli intelligence didn’t see the Hamas attack coming and failed to stop it once it started. They’re not in a position today to call the shots. Instead, they should expect the government to keep a tighter leash on their decisions and purchases from here on out. After such a failure, it’s only reasonable to demand more oversight.

This narrative of reform and renewal is not just about streamlining intelligence operations or enhancing their efficiency. It is about rebuilding trust and ensuring that the guardians tasked with protecting Israel are themselves supervised and guided by a broader vision.

Newsweek