Meet The Shin Bet’s New Director,Nadav Argaman

On the wall of the deputy Shin Bet head’s office there’s one picture: An enlarged ID card with the photo of an elderly man, sporting a white beard.

What does this man have to do with Nadav Argaman, who will take on the role of the head of the Shin Bet in May? The answer is known to only a handful of confidants in the organization. The elegant old man and Nadav Argaman are one and the same.

This is the same man, in one of his many lives as an operative in the Shin Bet’s Operations Division, undercover, many years ago.

IDF generals hang photos of themselves from their enlistment day on their office walls. To say: Look where I started and look where I am today. For senior operatives in the Shin Bet, revealing mementos from covert missions early in their career is not just a kind of nostalgia; it’s also a kind of statement: I can’t tell you more than this.

Indeed, very little can be written about Argaman’s operational career. He did most of his service in what might not be the biggest division, but is the most prestigious: The Operations Division. From his first day in the Shin Bet, he served in the division’s operations unit, the one that produces the fighters, the field troops, the ones dubbed in professional lingo: “The Operators.”

Those who served under his command in the Shin Bet remember him as a strict and demanding manager who did not spare his rod. But there’s also Nadav Argaman the private person, who has been blessed with quite a sense of humor, which he shares with a small group of very close friends, some childhood friends from his days at the kibbutz’s children’s society (first to sixth grade – ed.).

Argaman’s childhood days belong to a different Israel, the kind left only in songs.

He grew up in Kibbutz Hamadia in the Beit She’an Valley, in the late 1960s. It was a frontier town in the midst of the War of Attrition against Fatah and the Jordanian army. Katyusha rockets were fired in his direction every day. Shells from the Jordanian army’s Long Tom cannons landed in the nearby fields.

A terror cell infiltrated the kibbutz and murdered one of its members. And the children stood looking out the window in the dark, watching the tracer bullet fire. There were rifle pits all over the kibbutz. For three years, the children slept in the shelters. Amiram Argaman, Nadav’s father, who was seriously wounded in the Mishmar HaYarden battles during the War of Independence, was at the time the head of security in the area.

During the Yom Kippur War, when their fathers were called for duty, Nadav and his classmates stopped going to school in order to work the fields. It was the habitat for an entire generation that saw its future in security. Kibbutz Hamadia was a hotbed that grew fighters in elite units, who encouraged the younger generation to follow in their footsteps.

In Nadav Argaman’s age group, at least five friends joined the IDF’s Special Forces unit Sayeret Matkal, with him among them.

He finished his military service in the Paratrooper’s intelligence and reconnaissance unit, and then returned to the fields of the kibbutz. One of his father’s defense friends – probably a division head in the Shin Bet of those days – pulled him out of the kibbutz to work for the agency. And so, in 1983, Nadav informed the kibbutz that he was leaving for eight years to serve in the Shin Bet.

The unit that never was

In those years, before the Bus 300 affair (when two Shin Bet members executed two Palestinian hijackers after having captured them -ed.) and the intifadas, the Shin Bet was a very clandestine organization. Nobody talked about it.

The Operations Division was a small department with several dozens of members that served all of the Shin Bet’s regional commands and departments: From the Arab sector to intercepting and arresting spies.

Argaman left the kibbutz and “disappeared” for almost four years, during which he studied in one of the Shin Bet’s basic training tracks. The basic courses in the Operations Division can last somewhere between six months and three years, and include any and all sorts of training: Driver, undercover agent, medic, bomb disposal expert, fighter, airborne fighter, undercover employee, airborne lookout and other roles we know from action movies.

In 1984 the Shin Bet – and particularly the Operations Division – was badly shaken by the serious blow from the Bus 300 affair. It’s doubtful the affair had a direct impact on new agent Nadav Argaman’s career, but there’s no doubt it taught him a lot about where the lines of right and wrong are drawn, and what is the Shin Bet’s place in Israeli society. In his first four years of service, during which he was trained and made a fighter, the Shin Bet also operated alongside the IDF in Lebanon. During that time, the term “thwarting attacks” was introduced to the Operations Division.

This approach resulted in a series of achievements in the fight against Palestinian terror organizations in Lebanon and the West Bank, among other things.

Argaman stood out, got promoted, and in 1987 he was appointed the head of a tactical department in the Operations Division. He became the commander of a team of fighters, a “cornerstone” in the division’s operations. In most cases, the teams he commanded came together organically.

At times, a team like that was put together for a complex mission requiring different skill sets. Argaman and other tactical department heads entered the first intifada with the Operations Division’s main task being to capture wanted men.

The intifada started with a list of over 400 wanted men. In two years, that number dropped to less than 20. At the time, the Shin Bet’s unavoidable cooperation with the IDF also exposed the organization to the public more than ever before.

In 1991, Argaman was promoted to deputy head of the operations unit in the Operations Division, a role both managerial and operational in nature, where he stayed for three years. These were the days of the Oslo Accords, when the Shin Bet was preparing to leave Gaza and Jericho. The agency began to see the need to prepare an infrastructure of intelligence gathering from afar, when there’s no physical Israeli presence on the ground.

The Operations Division – with its infiltration and technological capabilities – played a key role in this.

In 1994, Argaman was made the head of the operations unit. This is the top of the pyramid for fighters, which is what he’s been so far. He ran the operations unit, planned its missions, and at times commanded them himself. At his disposal were some measures from the forefront of the intelligence world’s technological capabilities.

His missions varied from monitoring Jewish or Arab terrorists, to thwarting their attacks. During Argaman’s time in this role, “the Engineer” Yahya Ayyash was assassinated in Gaza.

In 1998 – after 15 years in the Shin Bet, four of which as the head of the operations unit and the deputy head of the division – he took a break to pursue academic studies, doing both his BA and MA at the National Security College. At the time, the Shin Bet was preparing for the possibility of further disengagement from the territories.

In 2000, Argaman was asked by then-Shin Bet head Avi Dichter to return to the agency in order to head a new secret unit that was supposed to provide an original answer to the Shin Bet’s need to infiltrate even deeper into the field. This was supposed to be a great, daring idea, but the unit never got off the ground, and was shut down.

The second intifada broke out then, and Argaman returned to his role as the deputy head of the Operations Division for two years. One of the achievements to his credit from that time is the establishment of the “prevention groups” in the Operations Division, which operate on several fighting fronts. The need to simultaneously conduct a growing number of operational prevention missions, at times at the drop of a hat, necessitated a different kind of operational approach.

That is why the Shin Bet, in cooperation with the IDF, established the ” warfare groups” (or “prevention groups”) which bring together – into one operations room – the military’s electronic intelligence people, the Shin Bet’s operations personnel and its intelligence agents, and the IDF and Air Force’s operations personnel.

Every such operations room collected data coming from different sources, which allows “incriminating” targets and destroying them in large numbers and in very short time. This approach has become increasingly more advanced, and has been serving the Shin Bet and the IDF in all of their operations since.

The secret quartet

The large number of suicide bombers in the second intifada and the need for an immediate response to the threat, the Shin Bet created, among other things, the “Tequila Unit” (an immediate response unit).

This was a combined unit comprising of members of the Shin Bet and the Yamam (Israel Police’s counter-terror unit), which was at the ready 24/7 in order to prevent a terror attack from being carried out within minutes of locating a suicide bomber or anyone else attempting to carry out an attack inside Israel.

Even in his junior command positions, it was already clear that Argaman’s work style wasn’t only pedantic, but also included his physical presence everywhere, whether it was inside the operations room or out in the field. People knew that he was around, and that he wouldn’t give up. Sometimes the field units would radio over “we have no indications of the target.

We are leaving the area of operations,” but Argaman would order them to stay another two hours. Ambushes lasting for days were not out of the ordinary when he was in charge. There was no cutting corners with him, no slowing down, and he could be very blunt. While this led to a lot of anger and clashes with those he worked with, he was also valued for his professionalism and the results he brought.

It is common practice in the Shin Bet that the deputy head of a division was a natural candidate for the top position. It was a kind of vote of confidence in the man and his abilities. And, indeed, from 2003-2007, Nadav Argaman served as the head of the Operations Division. In this role he became part of the Shin Bet head’s special staff, which is the agency’s equivalent of the IDF’s General Staff. During his tenure, the division increased its professionalism, and centralized its offensive operational capabilities into one division.

In the Mossad, for example, these same capabilities are spread out over four different divisions. These two organizations quite often make use of each other’s offensive capabilities.

Work at the Shin Bet doesn’t leave much time for people like Argaman to develop hobbies. Argaman spends his free time with his family and close friends. He enjoys travelling with his family, reading – mostly biographies – and he knows how appreciate a good meal and fine wine.

He is also a workout fanatic. Every morning – at an almost unreasonable hour – he goes running, so he can be at the office at seven in the morning. His athleticism has stuck to the whole family, with his daughter even becoming Israel’s Teen Female Wrestling Champion.

In 2007 he left on sabbatical – together with his wife Ruth and their three children – who were all in need of a break. He went with his family to the US, where he became the Shin Bet’s representative, responsible for the security of Israeli embassies and consulates in the US and Canada, and for the security of El Al planes flying to North America.

After three years in the US, Argaman requested to stay in his position an additional year until another high ranking position in the Shin Bet opened up. Yuval Diskin, the director of the Shin Bet at that time, rejected the request. In the Shin Bet’s internal code, it was more than a hint: thanks for your service, my friend. You’re done. Argaman – perceived in the Shin Bet to be an introvert, even shy to a certain extent – is also a very ambitious person. He believed that he had more to contribute.

And, indeed, several months later, in May of 2011, Diskin finished his tenure as the head of the Shin Bet. His replacement, Yoram Cohen, was grooming two successors for himself, Nadav Argaman and Roni Alsheikh. Argaman was given the opportunity to be the deputy head of the Shin Bet.

He was now not only a part of the Shin Bet’s “special staff,” but also a member of the small cabinet comprised of four high ranking officials: The head of the Shin Bet, deputy head of the Shin Bet, the head of the Operations Division, and head of the Manpower Division.

The deputy head of the Shin Bet is responsible for running operations, and filling in for the director when he is indisposed. He shares the responsibility of formulating the Shin Bet’s situation assessments, and of presenting these assessments to the prime minister.

This leads to a close working relationship between the Shin Bet’s deputy head and the prime minister. The deputy also assists the director in presenting the Shin Bet’s positions to the cabinet and to the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. He is also present at situation assessment meetings at the IDF’s General Staff, and at situation assessment meetings at the defense minister’s office. By the way, when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon released a statement congratulating Argaman on his appointment, it was not just a compulsory gesture.

They’ve known each other for 25 years, since Nadav was a fighter in the Shin Bet’s operational units, while Ya’alon was the head of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division.

The head of the Operations Division in the Shin Bet deals with the agency’s force structure, in terms of its multi-year planning, standardization, and budget. The force structure plans all must be approved by the deputy head of the Shin Bet. The Shin Bet has four-year work plans, which means that the work plan that Argaman approved as the deputy head in 2013 will be completed by him a director by 2017.

Even with his respectable resume, Argaman is considered an odd choice for the director of the Shin Bet. After the Six-Day War, the agency changed its core operating structure and directed most of its efforts to preventing Arab terror and to collecting intelligence on the Arab sector. Since then, almost all of the Shin Bet directors grew out of divisions which specialized in the Arab sector. The most important disciplines were, and still are, handling field agents and interrogation. The two exceptions were Avraham Shalom and General (res.) Ami Ayalon.

Even if it was unintentional, the appointment of Argaman – who throughout the majority of his career dealt with information collection technology and the prevention of attacks using technological measures – is quite revolutionary.

This is a statement which highlights a change in the Shin Bet, that the agency is putting more of an emphasis on technology. Indeed, the division which grew more than any of the others throughout the tenure of current Shin Bet Director Yoram Cohen is the division in charge of electronic intelligence gathering, which has grown by 25 percent. This mostly means more computer engineers and technicians in the agency.

If the Shin Bet’s director is both the orchestra’s general manager and its chief policy maker, his deputy is the conductor, overseeing all of its components, and has to be knowledgeable about all of its instruments: from interrogations and running agents, to cyber warfare.

Therefore, when the professionals raised their eyebrows at Yoram Cohen’s recommendation to appoint Argaman as his successor – even though he did not rise in the ranks of the Arab field – Cohen rejected their criticism outright. In his opinion, Argaman’s ability to successfully work with all of the tools at the Shin Bet’s disposal as the deputy head of the Shin Bet was not in question.

And there was something else. When Argaman returned from the US and appointed the deputy director of the Shin Bet, something changed in the way he worked. The people around him noted that he had softened a little, became more patient, more at ease, a little more open. He was out of the system for three years, and so for the first few months of his term as deputy, he listened and learned. And that continued.

The opening shot

As deputy director of the Shin Bet, Argaman was responsible for preparing the Shin Bet forces and for their operations during Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge. Another notable operation he was in charge of during his tenure as Shin Bet deputy director was Operation Brother’s Keeper in search of the three kidnapped yeshiva students – Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach – which began on June 12, 2014. The intelligence efforts ended on September 23 of that year – three months after the kidnapping – when the two murderers were found and killed.

The opening shot of Operation Pillar of Defense, on November 14 2012, was the Shin Bet’s responsibility. Shortly before the beginning of the operation, the Shin Bet was able to locate the head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari, and put a target on his back. Throughout Operation Pillar of Defense, it was the Shin Bet’s responsibility to assassinate high ranking Hamas officials – from division commanders and up.

The strategy was to come up with a number of targets whose assassination would be considered “game changing” including government institutions, offices of defense forces, the Hamas bank, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad operation rooms. Immediately after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas started to prepare for another round.

The intelligence units of the IDF Southern Command and the Shin Bet began to prepare for the next large-scale operation. The Shin Bet prepared to accompany IDF troops in operational activity inside the Gaza Strip – including collecting specific intelligence, such as where mines and booby-traps were laid. Later, Argaman, as the deputy director of the Shin Bet, stood with the head of Military Intelligence at the heart of the controversy over whether or not the IDF gave warning about the time frame of the next round: Operation Protective Edge.

He said – and hasn’t changed his opinion – that in April of 2014, the Shin Bet sent a warning to everyone in the defense establishment that Hamas was planning to carry out a pre-emptive strike, or attack in response to a security event. In such an attack, dozens of fighters from Hamas’ Special Forces will come out of the tunnels. The Shin Bet identified behavior, statements, and intentions of Hamas to launch a significant war in July of 2014.

The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence knew about most of the tunnels which crossed into Israel. The Shin Bet also identified Hamas’ efforts to build up its forces. Indeed, during the first day of the operation, the head of the Hamas naval commando unit was assassinated in a targeted killing, and the Shin Bet warned of the Hamas infiltration attempt from the sea in the Zikim area.

The work and preparation done by the intelligence branches – both from the Shin Bet and the IDF – enabled the detection of the majority of the entrances to the tunnels. The majority of the tunnels entrances into Israel were also known. At the very least, the Shin Bet and IDF were able to tell which sector these tunnels were in. In two instances, the Shin Bet was able to pinpoint exactly where the entry points of the tunnels were in Israel.

As a part of the list of targets compiled by the Shin Bet, in cooperation with Military Intelligence and the Southern Command, 416 terrorists were assassinated, of which 56 were commanders of different ranks. Mohammad Deif was also located and marked by the Shin Bet during the fighting, but he survived by the skin of his teeth.

At the end of the fighting, internal Shin Bet reports charged that the renewal and replenishing of stocks of rockets and missiles in the Gaza Strip was in question. Now, it is no longer in question. Even now, as Nadav Argaman begins his tenure as the director of the Shin Bet, Gaza is still his most immediate and explosive challenge. Hamas is preparing for another showdown, and the Hamas military wing believes that they’re more than ready to surprise Israel again. The Shin Bet is also preparing for the next round.

At the same time, other security and policy developments await him in the West Bank. Ahead of him are the fight against the continuous and deep espionage against Israel, principally from the various world powers; Iran and Hezbollah; Jewish terrorism; cyber threats; security – principally of important figures as well as aviation; the religious radicalization among Israeli Arabs; and the threat from the Islamic State on the borders of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. And on the sidelines: Dealing with BDS activists operating inside Israel.

As for the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank, it seems that Argaman’s views are synchronized with the rest of the security branches: There is an importance in maintaining the stability of the PA; there is a need to battle incitement; the cooperation with the Palestinian security forces must be strengthened, as they are the key to preventing terror attacks; it is imperative to keep Fatah’s Tanzim militant branch from becoming involved in the violence; the Palestinian economy should be cultivated, and investment in the Palestinian Authority encouraged.

As for the fight against terror, no one will be surprised if on his first day on the job, Argaman will present the various division and regional heads with a systematic doctrine. According to the Shin Bet, Hamas is doing all it can in order to change over from knife attacks to a full-fledged armed intifada, in both the West Bank and Jerusalem. The acts of terror – including suicide bombings – are supposed to drive a wedge between Israel and the PA and upend stability, which will enable Hamas to try to gain control over the PA.

On the January 1, Nashat Melhem, the terrorist from Arara, carried out an attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Dealing with terror attacks committed by Israeli Arabs is now the responsibility of Yoram Cohen’s two favorites: Nadav Argaman and Roni Alsheikh. Alsheikh, as the police commissioner, got the most of the public criticism. But those who were truly responsible for the manhunt after the terrorist were the Shin Bet. The police played second fiddle.

The manhunt exposed quite a few gaps in knowledge about the Arab sector. As the director of the Shin Bet, Argaman will have to deal with these gaps in knowledge. He will also need to deal with the perceived effect that the Islamic State has on Israeli Arab youth. While this is still not a phenomenon, and there have only been a couple dozen Israeli-Arabs who have gone off to fight with ISIS, the Shin Bet still need to work to stop this from becoming a trend.

In September of 2014, Argaman was loaned to the Atomic Energy Commission, and Roni Alsheikh took over as the deputy director of the Shin Bet. What was less known at the same time is that during Argaman’s time as the Shin Bet’s deputy director, he spent a lot of time with the prime minister, who was deeply impressed by him.

Later, when he was loaned to the Atomic Energy Commission to deal with Netanyahu’s favorite subject, the prime minister became even more determined to support Yoram Cohen’s candidate for successor. The appointment was agreed on back in September 2015, when Alsheikh agreed to take on the role of the police commissioner. Netanyahu didn’t even pretend to be looking at other candidates. Yoram Cohen reinstated Argaman to his position as Shin Bet deputy director and announcing the appointment became a question of timing.

As usual, Netanyahu found himself in distress, and not as usual, he announced the appointment three months before Cohen’s stepping down date. Last Thursday afternoon, Argaman was summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office, where he was told that he was chosen to be the Shin Bet’s director, and that the news will be announced later that day. Nadav Argaman barely had time to tell his family, and the news already made headlines all over the media.

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