Talpiot | Securing Israel’s Technological Edge Since 1979

Talpiot symbol

February 28, 2019

by John Bernstein

The latest scientific developments that the US provides Israel are channeled on to the Soviet Union. The main center through which this scientific information passes is Israel’s Weizmann Institute in the town of Rehoovot about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv.” (Bernstein, 1985)

Former President of the Zionist Organization and the first President of Israel Chaim Weizmann founded the Weizmann Institute of Science and was instrumental in the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Troy, 2018)

Talpiot program is an elite Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) training program for recruits who have demonstrated outstanding academic ability in the sciences and leadership potential. Graduates pursue double higher education while they serve in the army, and they use their expertise to further IDF research and development in technological leadership positions. The program was inaugurated in 1979.

The initiators of the program were Professor Felix Dothan and Professor Shaul Yatziv of the Hebrew University, who submitted the idea to the Israeli chief of staff Rafael Eitan. … The program is sponsored by the Israeli Air Force and IDF Administration for the Development of Weapons and the Technological Industry, and run under the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.” (Wikipedia)

Three decades after Talpiot was founded to modernize the Israeli army, the program has created … a legion of entrepreneurs that has helped turn Israel into a technology juggernaut.

With fewer than seven million inhabitants, Israel has more companies listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange than any country except the U.S. Its start-ups attracted nearly $2 billion in venture capital over the past two years, equal to the amount raised during that time in the much larger United Kingdom. Israeli companies pioneered instant messaging and Internet phoning.

Talpions, as graduates are called, have started dozens of these companies in recent years, specializing in security equipment, encryption software, communications and high-end Internet hardware. Many … have moved to Silicon Valley. 

Israel’s military says it has been more successful than it expected at retaining program graduates. “We think it’s excellent these people who carried out important jobs in the army later move on to contribute to the development of the high-tech sector in Israel,” the IDF said in a statement.

Unlike Talpiot’s sometimes highflying graduates, the program itself operates mostly out of view. During a rare recent visit to the classified program, housed on the Hebrew University campus here, officials would not disclose the work done during the military phase of the program and identified cadets only by their first initials. …

Talpiot’s roots lie in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Syria and Egypt launched attacks on contested lands held by Israel. The conflict shattered confidence within Israel in its military prowess.

“It was the anguish of this surprise war — there were so many casualties,” says Shaul Yatsiv, a retired professor of physics at Hebrew University, who with another physics professor proposed the idea for Talpiot. Mr. Yatsiv, along with some in the defense community, argued that given Israel’s scant manpower and limited natural resources, its military needed a technological edge. 

Instead of serving in combat units, Talpiot cadets are charged with improving the armed services through technological innovation. Some of the cadets delivered. Avi Loeb, who entered Talpiot in the early-1980s, developed a way to make projectiles travel at more than 10 times existing speeds, propelled by electric rather than chemical energy.

In 1984, Mr. Loeb, who was then 21, was asked to present his project to a visiting U.S. military officer, who turned out to be the head of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile-defense program known as Star Wars. Mr. Loeb says the officer, Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, agreed to provide U.S. government funding for the project, which quickly grew to a group of about 30 people headed by Mr. Loeb. Lt. Gen. Abrahamson, now retired from the military, didn’t respond to calls for comment. …

Talpions’ pursuits began to change in the 1990s, as the global tech boom got under way.

Israel began to develop its own start-up culture, in part by using tax incentives to establish a local venture-capital industry. The country also benefited from an infusion of talent from abroad, primarily from the collapsing Soviet Union. Among more than one million Russian Jews who arrived — increasing the total population by one-fifth — were well-trained scientists and engineers.

By the current decade, U.S. cash began pouring in. In 1999, Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that invested in Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., opened an office near Tel Aviv. It now has five partners there managing close to $400 million in funds devoted to Israeli start-ups. Venture-capital firm Accel Partners has directed about 35% of its $500 million for Europe and the Middle East to Israel, after opening a London office in 2000.

Today, the office parks in northern Tel Aviv and in nearby Herzliya — housing lawyers, venture-capital firms and start-ups — evoke the atmosphere of U.S. tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128, even down to the coffee shops where deals are done. Some call the area Silicon Wadi, after the Hebrew word for a dried-up stream bed. …

About 30 Talpiot graduates return every year to run a two-day test to select the next class from a group of about 100 applicants. That number is winnowed down from the several thousand top scorers on a test taken each year by all of the country’s graduating high-school seniors.” (Rhoads, 2007)

“Things began to change in 1977. Menachem Begin was elected prime minister. For the first time in the history of modern Israel, the previously dominant Labor party was in the opposition, and the right-wing Likud was now in charge. Change quickly spread to the army. …

Cybersecurity is another area in which Talpiot graduates have made their mark. In August of 2011, Eviatar Matania, known as “the right hand of Talpiot,” was appointed the head of the newly created Israel National Cyber Bureau (INCB), reporting directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. …

Another reason for the creation of the INCB was to expand Israel’s lead over its enemies in the field of cyber-warfare. As Israel’s enemies grow their own cyber capabilities, the INCB must maintain the qualitative edge so critical to Israel’s survival.

Matania was invited to a meeting of the Israeli cabinet in November 2011, shortly after he became head of the INCB. He told members of the government that cyber-attacks are “a broad threat to human society. While this is a challenge to the state, it is also an economic opportunity. The more we invest in academia and industry, the greater the return we will receive, from both economic and security perspectives.” Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, saying,

Israel is a significant force in cyberspace.…The INCB is designed — first and foremost — to organize defensive capabilities based on cooperation between three elements: Security capability, the business community and the academic world.

In 2012, Matania built a national cyber situation room to assess threats launched against Israel from foreign computers. Its goal is to have one central place where Israel’s political leaders see the full picture of what is threatening the state and what is being done to protect it. It is also where high-ranking military officers, government officials, and business leaders can come to share information.

In addition, the INCB works closely with Israeli software companies to protect the nation from the growing threat of hackers working for hostile governments and terrorist groups, as well as lone wolves trolling the Internet.

Another of Matania’s initial goals was to create clear and direct links between the bureau and computer scientists working in Israeli industry and at top Israeli universities. This multi-system, multi-organization kind of project management is an approach Matania developed in Talpiot, where cooperation and sharing information are highly prized.

Eviatar Matania has wisely used the bureau to help advertise Israel’s prowess in global cybersecurity, creating thousands of jobs and billions of shekels in revenue. It also serves as an arm that cooperates with friendly foreign countries and shares information about threats and enemies, much like Israel’s intelligence agencies. The INCB also serves as a gateway for foreign investment in Israeli’s technology sector.

Talpiot graduates have also been at the forefront of creating new weapons for the average soldier in the field, from better helmets to more powerful explosives. They have had a hand in every minor and major innovation that helps the IDF and Israel’s intelligence services.” (Gerwitz, 2016)

“Through dozens of interviews with graduates and early founders of the [Talpiot] program, [the book] Israel’s Edge explains Talpiot’s highly successful recruiting methods and discloses many of the program’s military and intelligence victories. Included are profiles of Talpiot’s outstanding graduates who have created cutting-edge businesses including Check Point, Compugen, Anobit (bought by Apple) and XIV (bought by IBM). …

The author of Israel’s Edge is Jason Gewirtz, … executive producer for the business network CNBC. …

In 1973 Israel was attacked from the north by Syria and from the south by Egypt simultaneously. Israel made some grave errors in the years between the 1967 war and the [1973] Yom Kippur War in intelligence and in technology. Israel failed to innovate in those inter-war years and it failed to piece together many crucial pieces of intelligence. France, Israel’s main weapons supplier at the time suddenly cut Israel off while the Soviets poured new weapon technology into the Arab nations.

After the war was over Professors Felix Dothan and Shaul Yatziv proposed a new program designed to tap into Israel’s smartest and most creative young minds. Their idea was to create an army unit where students would learn to fight — but learn to think first. …

Members of this unit aren’t just taught to think — they’re taught to think and learn fast.

While studying members of Talpiot are also sent to train with each and every unit in the IDF from the artillery to tank units, to the infantry, to the navy and air force to learn how each unit does its job. …

At the end of their first three years the men and women in this unit would then be asked to take their combat and academic training and combine them to help invent and improve all of the weapons in the IDF’s arsenal. During their next seven years of service Talpiots become military research and development experts. Missile defense is high on their list of responsibilities. But they also work to develop new tools for cybersecurity. Talpiots have led the way on this new global battlefield. Talpiots have also been very active in space, developing new satellite systems and high altitude, high resolution cameras that can be used to shoot images that then go to Israel’s intelligence services to help them see what Israel’s enemies are up to.

These soldiers have had an impact on every weapon and communications system used by the IDF and every tool used by Israel’s intelligence community. …

After their ten years in the army, about a third of Talpiot graduates stay in the IDF, usually in research and development roles. A third go into the academic world to teach while the other third go into business. …

Talpiot has been tasked with keeping Israel a generation ahead of a rapidly strengthening and technologically capable Iran making this book extremely timely. The unit also has to help Israel stay ahead of the United States and other large countries with strong militaries …” (Mizrahi, 2016)

If there were a “little black book” of the executives powering Israel’s tech-savvy innovation machine, it would look fairly identical to a directory of graduates of Israel’s super-elite Talpiot military program.

Every year no more than 60 of about 10,000 of Israel’s top-scoring math and physics standouts get accepted into Talpiot, which sends them for undergraduate degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in uniform, followed by six or more years of research-and-development work for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Inaugurated in 1979, Talpiot has spawned such leading lights as Check Point Software Technologies co-founder Marius Nacht [also a World ORT graduate], EarlySense founders Avner Halperin and Guy Shinar, Samsung R&D Labs director Tsvi Lev, Navotek Medical CEO Giora Kornblau, Itamar Medical R&D VP Efrat Litman, iOnRoad CEO Alon Atsmon, TaKaDu CEO Amir Peleg, Trusteer CTO Amit Klein, Kaizen Financial Engineering co-founder Dvir Greenberg, Odysii CTO Tal Reichert … well, you get the picture.

Talpiot was intended to give Israel a homegrown military edge, but it is also a contributing factor to its edge in biotech, high-tech and academia. …

“The ‘Talpionim’ [Talpiot graduates] have a very deep comprehensive education in basic sciences — mainly math and physics — but also a lot of understanding of materials, electronics and computers,” says retired Air Force Brigadier General Aharon Beth-Halachmi, who began laying the groundwork for Talpiot in 1974. “They are very capable to conquer any field they wish, so you find them in every area of high-tech and life sciences, contributing a great deal.” …

(The word talpiot, from the Song of Songs, implies a fortified tower or military academy.) …

“It’s now the 32nd cycle of alumni coming out, and you find them in all arms of defense and in high-tech and life sciences,” says Beth-Halachmi. “Almost every one of them has done something important and creative, not only in military service but also in industry and academia.” (Leichman, 2012)

“Lauded by entrepreneurs as one of the most successful and prolific high-tech entrepreneurs in Israel, or anywhere, especially in the telecom industry, [Talpiot graduate Zohar] Zisapel humbly says if it weren’t them, someone else would have created the technologies developed by RAD, and its group of companies. Six RAD Group companies now listed on NASDAQ include RADVISION, Ceragon Networks, Radware, RiT Technologies, RADCOM, and Silicom.

RAD has helped change life as we know it — enabling high-speed and wireless communication, and secure telephone networks and banking. Today, RAD is a solutions provider for more than 100 telecom operators around the world, including AT&T, British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, France Telecom, Japan Telecom, and Orange France. It provides communications tools to major players in the banking, commerce, education, finance, government, military, transportation, and utility sectors.

“We were part of a trend,” says Zisapel. “We were lucky to be starting in the beginning of the ’80s when Israel was still a very socialist country.” 

Born in Tel Aviv in 1949, Zisapel’s father — an immigrant from Poland — was a shoe salesman. Before becoming the head of the Electronic Research Department of the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, Zisapel had studied at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology for two degrees, then went on to Tel Aviv University for an MBA.

In 1981, he quit the Ministry of Defense and start RAD from the back offices of Bynet, a company his brother had started. Zohar’s first assignment at RAD was to manage the development of the company’s first product — a mini modem that would change the computer industry. …

Today RAD has blossomed into 27 companies, over the 27 years that the brothers have been working together. The group, which employs 3,500 people globally, has been called “the world’s most successful incubator of telecom related start-ups” by Business 2.0 magazine.” (Kloosterman, 2009)

“The NSA/Central Security Service defines itself as America’s cryptologic organization, which “coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. government information systems and produce foreign signals intelligence information.” The fact that the federal intelligence agency responsible for protecting the most critical computer systems and communications networks used by all branches of the U.S. government and military is using Israeli-made encryption software should come as no surprise. … [T]he keys to the most critical computer networks in the United States have long been held in Israeli hands. …

[S]cores of “security software” companies spawned and funded by the Mossad, the Israeli military intelligence agency, have proliferated in the United States. The “security” software products of many of these usually short-lived Israeli-run companies have been integrated into the computer products which are provided to the U.S. government by leading suppliers such as Unisys.

Unisys integrated Israeli security software, provided by the Israel-based Check Point Software Technologies and Eurekify, into its own software, so that Israeli software, written by Mossad-linked companies, now “secures” the most sensitive computers in the U.S. government and commercial sector.

The Mossad-spawned computer security firms typically have an office in the U.S. while their research and development is done in Israel. The Mossad start-up firms usually have short lives before they are acquired for exaggerated sums of money by a larger company, enriching their Israeli owners in the process and integrating the Israeli directors [some Talpions] and their Mossad-produced software into the parent company.” (Bollyn, 2006)

“In December 2016 [China’s] Huawei acquired Israel’s HexaTier, whose technology secures databases in the cloud, for $42 million. This followed a visit to Israel by the Chinese technology giant’s CEO. That same month Huawei also acquired [Israel based] IT research firm Toga Networks for an undisclosed amount.” (Reuters, 2019)

In Israel, Alibaba is hiring 40 R&D engineers to develop the company’s next generation of smart retail technologies. The research revolves around some of the most advanced versions of artificial intelligence — automated machine learning (AutoML). Alibaba leased office space in Herzelyia, outside of Tel Aviv, that can accommodate a much larger team, fueling speculation about its greater designs for Israel. Itamar Friedman, the head of Alibaba’s R&D center in Israel, said the operation will also serve as a stepping stone for local startup scouting and research projects in collaboration with academia.” (Blachman, 2019)

South Korea also has a Talpiot program through a partnership with Israel. (Yonhap, 2017)

Source:  https://medium.com/@bernstein1985/talpiot-securing-soviet-israels-technological-edge-since-1979-9cb4342dd420


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