‘Israel and the Cyber Threat’: The Jewish state’s rise to cyber power


In the real world, where national resources such as territory, population, and industry largely determine a country’s standing in the international community, Israel is a medium power by global standards. Despite often punching above its weight in the international arena, mainly as a result of its military prowess, the Jewish state simply lacks the resources to enter the ranks of the great powers.

In the cyber world, however, where brains and technology are the national resources that count the most, Israel has indisputably advanced into the ranks of the great powers. Indeed, according to some cyber experts, only the United States is currently a stronger power than the Jewish state in cyberspace. Even if this claim constitutes a bit of an exaggeration, just about all cyber experts agree that Israel is among the most formidable countries in the cyber world, on par with such others as Russia, China, and Great Britain, especially insofar as concerns matters of national security.

The remarkable story of how a second-tier power in the real world transformed itself into a first-tier power in the cyber world is related in part in Israel and the Cyber Threat, a fascinating deep dive into the Jewish state’s experience in cyberspace. Charles Freilich, Matthew Cohen, and Gabi Siboni, three leading authorities on Israeli national security (the first and third of whom have actually served inside the Israeli national security establishment in various capacities), focus specifically on the subfield of cyber security, exploring how the Jewish state’s policies and actions have contributed to its national security.

How Israel became a leading power in cybersecurity

Writing for a general audience in straightforward, easy-to-understand English, unburdened by a lot of obscurantist jargon – a virtue less and less in evidence these days in works by academics – the authors split their book into four parts, the first of which traces the history and problems associated with the development of cyber security around the globe. Freilich, Cohen, and Siboni explain the basic terminology and concepts related to this subfield, illustrating the assorted methods and different kinds of cyberattack, as well as summarizing what is publicly known about past cyberattacks mounted by Russia, China, and North Korea, the most capable “bad actors” in this realm of international affairs. This discussion leads in turn to a consideration of how best to counter such malicious conduct.

All of this useful background information helps to place Israel’s particular cyber security experience, the subject of the second part of the book, into its proper context. The authors observe that, while the Jewish state has been exposed to an incessant stream of cyberattacks by both bad state and non-state actors, it has thus far fended off far-reaching harm to itself. The Israeli government, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the Israeli defense industry have not suffered serious harm. Nor has Israeli society or the Israeli economy. Other countries, note Freilich, Cohen, and Siboni, have not been so fortunate.

Cyberattacks (credit: INGIMAGE)

How the Jewish state has readied itself to meet the threat of cyberattack is laid out in the third part of their book. The authors open this part of their work with a lengthy inquiry into those realist and Jewish impulses, especially the principles of self-help and self-reliance, which underpin Israeli efforts to assemble a vigorous cyber security infrastructure, revealing in the process that the Jewish state’s policies and actions in this arena flow directly out of its broader national security predicament, the imperative not only to survive but also to thrive in a hostile world.

Freilich, Cohen, and Siboni highlight in this regard the crucial roles played by the Israel National Cyber Directorate (INCD), the Israel Security Agency (ISA), the Mossad, and a number of IDF directorates. The authors also review here Israel’s offensive activities in cyberspace, which have included launching attacks and gathering intelligence against foes, with Iran being the foremost target of such activities.

While the first three parts of the book are primarily descriptive and analytical, the fourth part is mainly prescriptive. Overall, the authors laud the Jewish state’s cyber security performance; nevertheless, they are by no means uncritical of it, calling attention to numerous actual and potential shortcomings in organizational readiness and resource allocation that could cause extensive trouble in the face of sophisticated cyberattacks in the future. Their well-thought-out findings lead them to offer 34 comprehensive recommendations for change spread out across six basic cyber security issues. Without dipping into the particulars, their collective recommendations seem both sensible and doable.

A brief review like this one certainly cannot do justice to the full richness and subtle nuances of Freilich, Cohen, and Siboni’s book. Suffice it to say that, for the foreseeable future, their work will be the “go to” source about the Jewish state’s encounter with cyber security as it pertains to the country’s national security.  ■

  • Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Cyber Power
  • Charles D. Freilich, Matthew S. Cohen, and Gabi Siboni
  • New York: Oxford University Press, 2023
  • 422 pages; $45 (hardback)

David Rodman’s latest book is Israel’s National Security Predicament: Guarding the Third Temple.

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