Talking North Korea and Iran With Israel's Rocket Man

Yitzhak Ben-Israel thinks Kim's cyberwarriors are third-rate, U.S. missile defense is good, and the Iran deal is a keeper.
Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Success, it is said, has many fathers, and that is certainly the case of Israel’s astonishing achievements in the areas of missile defense and cybersecurity.

But if anyone is entitled to claim paternity, it is Isaac Ben-Israel. As a major general, he commanded the IDF unit in charge of military R&D and as the Director of Defense R&D in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, he oversaw the creation of Israel’s cutting edge anti-missile systems. As a civilian, he became the architect of Israel’s unique cyberdefense ecosystem. Today, at 68, he heads the department of security studies  at Tel Aviv University, chairs Israel’s Space Agency and its National Council for Research and Development and, in his spare time, writes influential books on high-tech military strategy and runs his own consultancy firm, RAY-TOP (Technology Opportunities) Ltd. He’s a busy man.

Last week, when I met Ben-Israel in his office at Tel Aviv University, I took a tape recorder with me. This isn’t my usual practice, but I admit to being nervous. It’s not every day that an ex-Israeli Defense Forces sergeant interviews a major general, especially when that major general is a combination Robert Oppenheimer and Batman, and the ex-sergeant barely passed high school geometry. I didn’t want to miss anything.

Ben-Israel readily agreed to being taped. I put the recorder on the desk between us and hit the on button. To my consternation, a red light began flashing. “I don’t think that’s supposed to happen,” I said.

“I don’t know either,” he said. “I never learned how to use one of those things. I can ask one of my assistants to take a look.” We both laughed, I fiddled with the recorder until the blinking stopped and began asking questions.

The New York Times recently reported that North Korea wants to become a cyberpower. Is that as dangerous as it sounds?

Not really. If it is true that North Korea has trained 6,000 computer experts in 10 years, that’s impressive. But that leaves them a long way from entering the top tier of cyberpowers.

Who’s in that class?

Cyberweapons can be either offensive or defensive. If I had to rank countries in both categories, I would say that the U.S. and Russia are first, followed by Israel, Great Britain and China, in that order. There’s a second tier, composed of countries like France, Germany and other modern democracies. North Korea, and Iran, by the way, are strictly third tier.

Why does the number of trained personnel matter? Why can’t a country like North Korea simply hire foreign hackers?   

The Lone Hacker is mythology. You need networks to mount serious operations. First, you have to gather information on the target. This takes time and effort, and it is an ongoing process. You have to constantly monitor and update what you know and what the other side is doing. If your goal is to insert a Trojan virus, like Stuxnet, it must be done gradually and stealthily. According to foreign analysts, it took two years and hundreds of highly skilled operatives.

So there is no serious threat from cyberterrorists?

It can happen, but usually terrorist organizations don’t have the manpower or the patience for cyberwar. To get the effect they want (mainly in the media), it is easier and more cost-effective for them to fly a plane into a building or put a bomb in the railroad station.

How does Israel defend itself from more serious challenges?

By building an ecosystem. That is what we have done.

What does that mean?

In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged me with creating a five-year plan national cyberdefense. The problem is, a single year is a generation in cyber. You can’t predict five generations ahead.

What you can do is to train a sufficient number of talented experts capable of dealing with the changes that inevitably develop over time. You also need to organize a flexible, integrated infrastructure that can evolve with new technology and new threats.

The prime minister agreed with my approach. Consulting with the top people in a number of related fields, I delivered 13 recommendations for creating an ecosystem. To his credit, Netanyahu fully accepted the plan, and implemented it. Without his leadership, it wouldn’t have happened.

What were some of the things you proposed?

Many involve investment in education. For example, in 2010, there wasn’t a single university in the world where you could get a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. Today, almost every Israeli university offers one. High school students can now major in cybersecurity and enter the army with a high level of knowledge. We’ve even begun educating elementary-school kids on the basic rules of the cyber road. As a result, I believe that Israel is number one in the world, per capita, in cultivating this sort of talent.

What are other aspects of the plan? 

The business sector is also part of our ecosystem. Israel is a small country with a small domestic market. We live by exporting. Cyber is an important product, but early on we realized that it can sometimes be used as a weapon.

Selling weapons abroad requires a government license, with all the red tape that entails. When we export major systems, it is to countries or mega-corporations, and the conditions of use are negotiated contractually. It is a long process and we know exactly what the terms are.

But high-tech startups are different. They are largely funded by private investors, many from abroad, who expect a return on their investments. Our challenge was to find a way to allow these startups to flourish without allowing dangerous technology to fall into the wrong hands. And we have.


We decided to allow the export of defensive cybertechnology without the need for a government license. Offensive technology requires one.

Isn’t that a hard line to draw?

It is. Actually, nobody really knows how to draw it. So we leave it to the exporters themselves to determine if their product requires a license. This permission comes with a warning: If we catch you trying to sell offensive cyber products abroad, there will be severe legal penalties.

In other words, you want ambiguity and the burden of proof on the exporter?

Yes. I’m not sure this would work in other countries but it does for us. So far there hasn’t been a single problem. Meanwhile, Israel’s share of the global market in cyber products and services has reached 10 percent -- a fivefold increase over the past five years. And I read an article in Bloomberg about six months ago estimating our share of global cyber R&D at around 20 percent. So evidently we are doing something right.

Let’s talk about another area of your expertise, missile defense. Is the American long-range missile defense system good enough to protect the United States from North Korean ballistic missiles?  

That’s difficult to assess without real-life experience in battlefield conditions. That’s where weapons get debugged and improved. U.S. anti-ballistic systems have been tested in missile ranges, but not in combat situations. But it appears the U.S. has done a lot of serious, test-range work against actual missiles.

What’s your level of confidence that they will do the job?

It’s a guess on my part, but I’d say nine on a scale of 10.

North Korea also has a huge number of short-range missiles aimed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Israel has experience with rocket fire from Lebanon and Gaza. Is it applicable?

First, it must be remembered that North Korea has nuclear weapons. If the U.S. crosses a red line, the crazy dictator in Pyongyang could use them. Hezbollah and Hamas don’t have nuclear weapons, which is exactly why Israel doesn’t want Iran to have them.

As far as conventional short-range artillery, we have solved that technological problem with the Iron Dome. In Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired 4,200 missiles at Israel. They killed some 80 people. We didn’t then have the Iron Dome. Nine years later, Hamas in Gaza fired 4,500, same type of rockets, and there was not a single casualty. That’s the meaning of “battle-tested.”

Will this work against North Korea?

It is a matter of scale. North Korea’s rockets are not different from those of Hamas and Hezbollah. But North Korea has a great many more. If they were to launch a massive simultaneous barrage, you’d need a sufficient number of Iron Dome batteries.

There are media reports that Israel has sold, and is selling, Iron Dome batteries to South Korea and Japan. True?

I have read that in the newspapers, the same as you.

Are there other countries that have developed their own Iron Dome?

Israel is the only one.

Let’s turn to Iran. You have been on the record as seeing the nuclear deal with Iran as good for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu disagrees. So does President Donald Trump, who has declined to re-certify Iranian compliance and sent the matter to Congress. Has that changed your thinking? 

At present there is an international agreement that prevents Iran from having the Bomb. People may say, how can you believe Iran? The answer is, don’t believe, check! You can do it the old fashioned way, through espionage, and there are also provisions in the deal that permit constant monitoring, which will decrease over 20 years. 

That is the point that Trump and Netanyahu make -- that eventually Iran will be free to develop nuclear weapons.

God knows what will happen in 20 years. Let’s talk about now. Before the deal, Iran was two months away from having enough fissile material to complete their project. It had enriched uranium, not only 3.5 percent but also 19.7 percent. This was acquired despite an international sanctions regime. If the deal collapses, is it likely that more sanctions will deter Iran from resuming its project? Especially if Europe, Russian and China decline to go along with American sanctions?

So Netanyahu, and Trump, are wrong in “nix it or fix it?” approach?

They are two people who have their own opinion. In both cases, it is not shared by their professional advisers and intelligence communities.

Would you advise Congress to keep the deal intact?

I’m an Israeli. I don’t give advice to the American Congress.

Iran is aggressive. Does it pose a conventional military challenge to Israel?

Iran is an aggressive enemy, but its conventional threat (military as well as terrorism) is small given the power of Israel.

Iran wants Russia to provide it with an advanced S-400 anti-aircraft system. Would that change your calculation?

It won’t make a big difference. We have the technology to deal with it. 

Final question: As president, Donald Trump has sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. Does that concern you?

The president does have the authority but he can’t just press a button. In order to launch his nuclear missiles he needs the cooperation of others. In any case, I’m not concerned. President Trump is unpredictable, unexpected, but I don’t think he’s insane.

How does Israel’s protocol for launching nuclear weapons differ from the American model?

Thank you very much for stopping by.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at

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    Be Careful Who You Call a 'White Supremacist'

    If you've cried wolf too many times, no one will listen when you actually see the real thing.

    Actual white supremacists. Not to be confused with Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.

    Source: Keystone/Getty Images

    “The NFL Protests Are a Perfect Study of How White Supremacy Works” reads the headline on a recent article at the Root. Which is confusing if you think of “white supremacy” as an apartheid system like Jim Crow, and “white supremacists” as angry people running around in sheets and hoods. The Root's looser use of “white supremacy,” to describe something considerably less explicit than advocating a race war, has become increasingly common.

    The term was popularized by academic race theory, where it seems to have largely replaced previous terms of art like “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” Now it is migrating out of the ivory tower and into everyday discourse, puzzling the millions of Americans who are used to an older, narrower meaning.

    It’s easy to see why writers and academics find the term appealing. “Institutional racism” conjures up images of beige-carpeted offices and rows of desks; “systemic racism” sounds like some sort of plumbing problem. “White supremacy,” on the other hand, packs a visceral punch that commands the reader’s attention. Because they’re describing something that needs attention, it’s useful to have a phrase that does the job.

    Nonetheless, using “white supremacy” this way is a mistake. It leads to confusion in the national conversation, because opposing sides are using a critical term in very different ways. It hampers our ability to discuss the phenomenon that the anti-racists actually want to discuss. And ultimately, if we continue to use it this way, it will lose the very emotional resonance that made it an appealing substitute for more clinical terms.

    The redefinition of “white supremacy” is part of a broader tendency to take words with narrow meanings and a highly negative connotation, and redeploy them in much broader ways. Take the use of the word “misogyny.” The word literally means “hatred of women”; politics transformed it into “someone who believes that women are not men’s social and intellectual equals.” But recently, that definition has broadened to include, for example, people who do not support the right to an abortion, people who do not think that women should serve in combat, or Google engineers who think that maybe fewer women than men are interested in high-level STEM careers.

    If you strongly disapprove of these political views, it’s tempting to conflate them with hatred of women. Unfortunately, when you use “misogyny” in this way, you do not get people to take lesser forms of sexism more seriously. In fact, you run the risk that people might stop taking actual misogyny so seriously.

    It’s the inverse of what Steven Pinker has dubbed “the euphemism treadmill,” where we try to find nicer words for something we don’t think is very nice, and find that the new words quickly take on all the old connotations. So “toilet,” turns into “bathroom,” then migrates onward to “rest room.” Only we still know there's a toilet behind that door, and whatever words we use about it, our feelings don’t change.

    This is why attempting to change how Americans feel about illegal migrants by changing the terms we use to describe them is a project doomed to failure; whether they are “illegal aliens” or “undocumented immigrants,” the political realities remain the same. People who feel negatively toward “illegals” feel just as negatively toward “undocumented immigrants.”

    The invective treadmill works in a similar fashion, only in reverse.

    The lexical activists seem to hope that by using strong words to describe diffuse structural and social problems, they can tap into the moral outrage that society feels toward men who deride female equality, or toward those who prate of race war while strutting around in swastika armbands. The idea is apparently that if we put the racial inequalities perpetuated by the criminal justice system on the same moral plane as lynch mobs and segregated lunch counters, people will have to attack the former with the same vigor we would use against any attempt to bring back Jim Crow.

    This overestimates the power of words. People make a stark moral distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission; between policies that disadvantage some group inadvertently, in the process of pursuing some other goal, and those that are expressly aimed at oppression; between the petty tribalism that all humans engage in, and the advocacy of genocide. You are unlikely to erase these moral distinctions by rewriting the dictionary.

    Worse yet, imagine that activists are successful at conflating white supremacy with racism, and misogyny with sexism. We may find that the result is not a stronger distaste for the diffuse structural bias in our society, but a weaker distaste for the intentional, more dangerous forms of discrimination.

    It only makes sense to redefine words in this way if you believe that there is literally no difference between David Duke and Mitt Romney, between the Jim Crow South and modern America. There is a difference. We need to continue to draw a firm verbal line between them. If we don’t, we are helping our common enemy to camouflage themselves and slip into the general population.

    During the 2016 presidential campaign, I found myself confronted by a curious problem: Many of my readers simply didn’t take it seriously when I pointed out that Donald Trump was, if not an outright racist himself, at least happily pandering to people who were.

    “The media calls every Republican racist,” my conservative readers replied. “They said it about Mitt Romney, they said it about George Bush, so what’s different about Trump?”

    They were right. Other columnists had accused Romney and Bush of being racist and pandering to racists. I pointed out that Trump's racist appeals were different, and much worse, than anything that earlier Republican presidential candidates had been accused of. But it didn’t do any good. The media had cried wolf to condemn garden-variety Republicans; labels like “racist” had been rendered useless when a true threat emerged. We shouted to no avail as Trump coyly flirted with hardcore white supremacists, something no mainstream party had done for decades.

    Indeed, it seems to me that critical race theorists have gone to “white supremacy” precisely because the increasingly broad uses of the word “racism” have made it less effective than it used to be at rallying moral outrage. The term still packs some wallop, but less than it once did, because it is now defined so broadly that a Broadway musical could sing “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” White supremacy, on the other hand, is still clearly understood as beyond the pale.

    But if we indiscriminately apply the term to everything from the alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer, to anyone who thinks that football players should stand for the national anthem … for how long will white supremacy still be considered beyond the pale? What happens if people accused of racism start shrugging off the epithet -- or worse, embracing it? And when another Richard Spencer comes along, how will we convey how dangerous he is?

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

      To contact the author of this story:
      Megan McArdle at

      To contact the editor responsible for this story:
      Philip Gray at

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