The Mother of Invention

Advance: Yaakov Katz & Amir Bohbot, 'The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower'

Israel's Iron Dome defense system / Getty Images
April 15, 2017

In 1948, as Israel was heading into its first war, an IDF general sent a letter to David Ben-Gurion, Israel's new prime minister, politely declining his offer to become chief of staff because he had learned the Jewish State only had six million bullets. "We will need 1 million bullets a day in a war and I am not willing to be chief of staff for just six days," he wrote.

The Weapon Wizards, an engaging look at Israel's weapons industry, is replete with such anecdotes. (Another that's hard to resist is how Jewish forces in Jerusalem held off Arab rioters with one gun and 11 bullets. Afterward, the commander criticized the "gratuitous use of ammo.") Such stories drive home how little Israel had militarily in its early years. Israel's humble beginnings make it even more remarkable that it has become a military power. The goal of the authors, Israeli journalists Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, is to explain how that transformation came about. As they write, 60 years ago Israel's biggest exports were oranges and false teeth. Today, weapons make up 10 percent of Israel's exports.

Like Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Katz and Bohbot identify national characteristics that have led to a "culture of innovation." Leading the list is a creativity born of necessity. "With barely any resources beyond the human capital that had immigrated to the new state, Israelis had to make the most of the little they had," the authors write. Israel has even created a subunit of autistic soldiers to analyze satellite pictures.

The Weapon Wizards is at its best showing these characteristics in action, from amusing episodes to in-depth stories focusing on the development of certain weapons systems. For instance, when illustrating the advantages of the IDF's flexible hierarchy, the authors describe a visit by the U.S. Air Force's F-16 program director. During a tour of IDF squadrons, one of the participants started lecturing his commander on everything that was wrong with the plane. The U.S. representative, a lieutenant general, asked the person to identify himself. He was shocked to learn the critic was a lowly mechanic. In America, the authors write, it's unheard of to talk out of turn and argue with your commander, especially in front of a foreign officer. "In Israel, though, no one thinks in those terms. What the mechanic was doing was exactly what he had been trained to do and what he thought was expected of him—to speak his mind," the authors write.

In a similar vein, Israel nurtures its best and brightest. A fascinating example of this characteristic is a program called Talpiot. Created in 1979, it pulls together some of Israel's most promising young people, who sign on for nine years of service in return for degrees in fields like physics, math, and computer science. Thousands apply each year; only 30 are accepted. Talpiot graduates, called Talpions, are seeded throughout the army where they have an impact far beyond their numbers. In 40 years, the program has produced roughly 1,000 graduates, but a single one can revolutionize a unit, the authors say. Although the program met resistance early on, within a few years generals were demanding to know: "Where is my Talpion?" The prime minister was forced to hold a special meeting to resolve the issue.

Although Katz and Bohbot don't come right out and say it, it's evident that for all the encouragement of innovation, there remains resistance within the military one would expect from any large establishment. Talpiot had to overcome naysayers before it was embraced, and so did many of the programs the authors discuss, from satellites to the Iron Dome. This suggests the IDF fosters innovation only after a fight. What appears to distinguish the IDF from other militaries is that innovative individuals don't quit. They also have an admirably dismissive attitude toward army regulations. The premier example is Brigadier General Danny Gold, who developed the Iron Dome.

Gold met "overwhelming opposition" to his idea for a rocket defense system. But he was undeterred, going "beyond the usual Israeli chutzpah," according to Katz and Bohbot. He told Rafael, Israel's state-owned defense company, to start developing the system and go into production as soon as it was ready—orders only the IDF chief of staff and defense minister can issue. Gold basically threw out the IDF rulebook. By the time the state comptroller issued a report chastising Gold, the Iron Dome had already proven a startling success. Gold is considered a national hero.

Israel's satellite program is another example of innovation and chutzpah (the title of the chapter is "Chutzpadik Satellites"). When Israel attempted to launch its first real reconnaissance satellite in 1993, instead of going into space, the satellite went into the Mediterranean. The failure was an embarrassment, prompting jokes about Israel's antisubmarine satellites. Less funny was the fact that money for the program had run dry, while opposition was building in the defense ministry. Instead of throwing in the towel, the program chiefs took a mock satellite not built for space and sent it into orbit within two years.

Such stories inspire the imagination. But they also inspire a question: How is it that Israel, so advanced militarily, comes up so short politically? Katz and Bohbot are aware of the problem, noting in their conclusion that Israel's military advances are "meaningless if Israel's operations lack the international stamp of legitimacy. The state can develop, manufacture and even sell weapons around the world, but that won't mean much if the world refuses to support Israel's actions."

What the authors don't say is that much of the fault lies with Israel. The 1993 Oslo Accords were the peak of Israel's self-destructive behavior. Israel resuscitated the PLO, on the ropes after the Gulf War and known worldwide as a terrorist organization. In the blink of an eye, the Jewish State legitimized it along with Palestinian Arab territorial aspirations. Israel remains trapped by a policy of its own making. Today, the Likud government seeks to strengthen and expand Jewish settlements even as it broadcasts its support for a two-state solution that grants Arabs political rights to the land the Jews are building on. The contradiction is easily exploited by Israel's enemies—and even some of her putative friends.

The problem, of course, did not start with Oslo. It was the culmination of years of neglect. While the Jewish State might develop ingenious ways to counter physical weapons, it has done nothing to combat psychological weapons. And so the calumnies have grown with time. None of this is to excuse the civilized world, which gladly tilts a morally degenerate ear to Arab lies.

No one spoke more forcefully of the need for Israeli countermeasures than Shmuel Katz, Irgun leader turned writer and publisher. He warned for decades in his Jerusalem Post columns of the dangers Israel faced by leaving anti-Israel propaganda unchallenged. In one, "Countering Propaganda," he wrote: "Israeli governments have not come to grips also with the nature of the war. It is not designed to achieve a change in this or the other policy of the Israeli government. Its aim is to put an end to the Zionist entity, to delegitimize Israel—by the assertion, endlessly repeated, that the Jewish people has no right to Palestine, and the Jewish State has no right to exist at all, that the land is Arab territory usurped by the Zionists with the aid of the imperialists." Putting Israel's public relations failure in military terms, he said, "our existing hasbara [information services] could be likened to a single fishing smack confronting a fleet of a dozen battle ships firing all its guns."

One small, semantic example of that failure that especially incensed Katz: The area where Israel builds its much-maligned settlements was the West Bank [of Jordan] for only the 19 years Jordan controlled it. Ironically, only two countries recognized Jordan's sovereignty since it had seized the territory in the 1948 war. Until that time, for thousands of years, Christian civilizations knew the area as Judea and Samaria. Yet Israel itself continued to use the term West Bank long after Jordan had left.

Reading The Weapon Wizards, one can't help wishing Israel would create a Talpiot for politicians.

Published under: Book reviews , Israel