At an Iowa town hall last month, Hillary Clinton advertised her Middle Eastern expertise by reminding voters how, as secretary of state, she was able to convince Israel not to attack Gaza in 2012. In Israel, however, others with longer memories were reminded of the time when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised Israel not to attack Egypt in 1973, and Israeli intelligence concurred, there was no need to attack.
Two days after Yom Kippur, 1973, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, surveying Israel’s collapsing armies on every front, uttered his famous Jeremiad: “The Third Temple is falling.”
Of course, the Third Temple (code for the modern State of Israel) still stands, but the near-death experience still reverberates in the Israeli imagination. A new book, “Israel’s Edge: Talpiot, The IDF’s Most Elite Unit” (Gefen Publishing House), by Jason Gewirtz, examines the 1974 post-war origins and development of Talpiot, the so-called Mensa of Israeli military intelligence and innovation.
In recent years, Talpiot graduates were said to have had input in the 2007 sabotage of Syria’s radar defense, allowing Israeli jets to destroy a Syrian nuclear reactor; in the Iron Dome system, so critical to Israel’s missile defense in the 2014 Gaza war; and in Stuxnet, the computer virus that infected and disrupted Iran’s nuclear program, temporarily giving outsiders control of Iran’s centrifuges.
Gewirtz, an executive producer at CNBC, the business cable network, tells us over the phone that none of these programs were the singular work of Talpiot, secrecy being the better part of valor, but all of these spectacular enterprises are discussed in his book that “I did voluntarily submit to the censorship unit at the IDF. And the Ministry of Defense read the book, to make sure that they were okay with everything.”
Gewirtz, 43, from Rockville, Md., now living in northern New Jersey, had once worked in Israel’s Civil Guard, a police auxiliary, and calls himself “a hard-core Zionist. Like everyplace else, Israel has problems, but I love Israel very much, it’s an amazing place. I go to bed thinking of Israel, and I wake up thinking of Israel.” He is donating any profits from the book to the Friends of the IDF fund for wounded veterans because “I didn’t want them to think I was profiting from their story.”
Gewirtz was in Israel for NBC and CNBC in 2006, when he first saw an article about a Talpiot veteran, “there’s now probably over 1,000,” Talpiot graduates, says Gewirtz. At first, they admitted 15 or 18 a year; now they admit around 40, and around a third drop out of the grueling nine-year military commitment that includes three years of intensive academic study at Hebrew University.
Two Israeli professors of the sciences, Shaul Yatziv and Felix Dothan, conceived of Talpiot in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. In the Song of Songs, Talpiot, literally meaning strongholds, or turrets, is a metaphor for leadership. Yatziv and Dothan wrote in their initial proposal that Israel must develop “totally innovative weapons that do not exist among the nations … even in the armies of the superpowers.” Since they believed that “creativity reaches its peak” in one’s 20s, they were looking for young applicants in the “top 5 percent when it comes to intelligence, creative ability, the ability to focus … [with] stable and pleasant personalities.” The Talpiot cadets would undergo basic training with the paratroopers or other elite units, and earn college degrees in advanced physics, aeronautics, and later computer science, “disciplines needed for engineers working on advanced weapons systems.” Also in the curriculum was Jewish thought and Arabic studies.
At first, many in the IDF brass were skeptical. Part of the IDF’s code and charm is that it is “the great democratizer,” says Gewirtz, “a people’s army where the rich would meet the poor, immigrants would meet multi-generational Israelis,” but Talpiot is “an elite unit,” so they are treated as soldiers first and foremost. At Hebrew University, the program is run by the military, with students wearing Air Force uniforms in class. (They become officers upon graduation).
Most intriguing is the interview for would-be entrants. Talpiot wants to know how someone thinks, says Gewirtz. “You go into a blank room somewhere, seated with military officers and professors, and they ask you a gamut of questions, questions that you’re not even supposed to know the answers to. They don’t want answers, so much as wanting to gauge your approach.” The young men and women are asked about anything from microwaves to Janis Joplin to calculating – on one foot – the number of gas stations in Israel.
After three years in university, the graduates, says Gewirtz, “are put into a draft, so to speak, where the navy, air force, Mossad, ground forces, defense contractors, among others, say ‘I need a guy who can do …’ They may go into the MAFAT,” Israel’s agency (now led by a Talpiot veteran) for the development of weapons and high-tech infrastructure, or into Unit 8200, the technological-intelligence unit that also engages in some undercover activities such as the Stuxnet temporary sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities.
Others work on projects such as Trophy, a tank-defense system, and unmanned ground vehicles, which Gewirtz likens to drones. “The ground vehicle can go into a heavily populated area, take fire, determine through the use of cameras where the fire is coming from” so troops can then enter, firing at the exact targets, lessening the uncertainty of urban warfare.
Gewirtz wrote that Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, who once headed MAFAT, explained that Talpiot is trying to teach a different way of thinking. Before the Yom Kippur War, says the general, “the intelligence community looked primarily for evidence to support their conjecture that the Syrian and Egyptian armies were merely carrying out exercise maneuvers – which was precisely what the Arab military wanted them to think.” Nevertheless, “there were pieces of information that refuted this conjecture.” For example, a few days before the war, the families of Soviet advisors in Egypt and Syria flew back to Moscow. “You don’t do this if the army is merely carrying out an exercise. But the chief of Israeli intelligence said, ‘OK, I have so much information which supports and corroborates the exercise conjecture… therefore I think the most probable one is the exercise conjecture.’”
Ben-Israel says, “My method is not to look for supporting evidence. I look for refuting evidence.”
If intelligence explored the refuting evidence, says the general, “they would have followed up to see [if] … the Arab armies had carried out the exercises they’d supposedly been assigned. They would have immediately found out that neither Egypt nor Syria ever actually completed the exercises. It was all part of a misinformation campaign. The Egyptians would send telegrams saying this unit should do that exercise, this unit should do that, knowing we’d intercept their communications. But we never checked to see that the armies were, in fact, ignoring the telegrams. That was a fatal mistake … Same facts, different ways of looking at them.”
So how would Talpiot have prevented the Yom Kippur War? They had intelligence then, too, but it was dismissed. Says Gewirtz, “What Talpiot would do is bring the smartest people together in room, collaborating. Prior to the Yom Kippur War, I’m not sure you had the smartest people in one dedicated place.”
Many of the “smartest” Talpiot graduates, however, have taken their genius and expertise into high-tech private sector, often in Silicon Valley, something Gewirtz thinks is terrific but not everyone agrees. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Three decades after Talpiot was founded to modernize the Israeli army, the program has created an unforeseen byproduct — a legion of entrepreneurs that has helped turn Israel into a technology juggernaut,” leading critics to wonder “whether government resources should go toward minting tech millionaires. In its goal of creating a new generation of military leaders … the program has fallen short.”
In the past decade, high-tech Israel was, in fact, not quite ready for 10,000 low-tech Hamas rockets, or the miles of tunnels burrowing from Gaza into Israel. Low-tech Hamas was able to capture Gilad Shalit, who was surrounded at his kidnapping by high-tech Israeli tanks and equipment.
Nevertheless, right behind the front lines are the best and the brightest of Talpiot. “These are the guys,” says Gewirtz, “who will prevent Israel from falling. Israel will not fall in our lifetime.”