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Analysis | Is this the end of Israel’s offensive cyber industry?

Brig. Gen. (Res.) Hannan Geffen, former head of IDF intelligence unit 8200, believes that Israel crossed a red line regarding the US. “The rules of the game are set in DC, not in Tel Aviv”

Photo: REUTERS/Keren Manor
Photo: REUTERS/Keren Manor

It has been almost a year since the US Department of Commerce added two offensive cyber companies to its Entity List.

Attempts to remove these companies from the blacklist have failed. To borrow from the world of soccer, this is a red card for Israeli political and defense decisionmakers. The offensive cyber celebration, a sub-category of the cyber realm (also known as cyberespionage) is over.

Coming down from an extended high is not easy. At first, officials in the cyber industry believed this is a mere misunderstanding, and that the situation would return to normal if the Israeli Ministry of Defense clarifies to the Americans that everything is done under supervision and authorization.

However, the Israeli government and MoD have come face to face with an unknown wall of refusal.

The MoD stuttered an explanation to the local industry, that it is can no longer continue authorizing export licenses as broadly as it had previously done.

This is an almost unprecedented discrepancy between the MoD’s export policy over the past decade and the understanding and coordination which it shares in other aspects with Israel’s great ally.

Some claim that the US sanctions are designed to halt – or at least suspend – the Israeli offensive cyber race, and thereby give a head start to the American industry that has been lagging behind.

Indeed, undisclosed sources reported the intent of American companies to purchase an Israeli offensive cyber companies, with permission from the US intelligence community, but those reports were immediately denied by US government officials.

Furthermore, the US had convicted veterans of its intelligence community of transferring similar knowledge to foreign countries. Some believe the reason for that is Biden’s submission to pressure by human rights organizations.

The most stringent commentators added that this is an anti-Israeli quest, marred by the involvement of elements hostile to the country. This is a childish explanation, which cannot explain the American harshness towards an ally nation.

Israel’s offensive cyber, manufactured by the nation’s cyber industry, has assumed prominence given its high quality in comparison to the products of foreign competitors. IDF intelligence veterans developed intelligence and operational products similar to the ones they know during their military service.

They did so while fully knowing that the Israeli defense system was fully aware of their actions and had been supervising and approving export, and that they are serving their state. Furthermore, the state has also used offensive cyber products itself in order to promote important diplomatic moves.

And what about the defense system? In the past few years, it found itself trapped between the harsh demands of the Americans on the one hand, and the pressure of the local industry and political echelons in Israel on the other.

Israel turned a deaf ear to questions and queries by the US Department of Defense and intelligence community. The Israeli MoD did make an attempt to update its export regulations and adapt them to the current zeitgeist – but the result, exporting offensive cyber products to some 100 nations, shows that this attempt had failed.

The American determination, the fortified wall it had set before the State of Israel, stems from a real fear of harming US national interest. Among others, those include the prevention rivals from obtaining advanced attack capabilities, and “burning” sources of the US intelligence community.

The American intelligence and cyber protection communities are behind the decision to blacklist Israeli companies. This act is a declaration that Israel had crossed a red line which had been agreed upon between the most advanced intelligence communities in the world, by aiding in the commercialization of offensive cyber intelligence tools and their distribution to almost anyone who had requested them.

Even if this is not publicly stated, the US government and intelligence community have placed a question mark over Israel’s judgment call and responsibility.

At the same time, the US authorities clarified to the State of Israel that in the offensive cyber field – much like in other international treaties which supervise the use of military means – the rules of the game are set in Washington, not in Tel Aviv.

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