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UAE cyber officials to join Israeli counterparts at major NYC conference

Israel-founded Cybertech NYC will feature past Mossad and CIA chiefs, Emirati security chiefs, as Jewish state continues to play a major role in field

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Head of Israel's National Cyber Directorate Yigal Unna at the Cybertech 2020 conference in Tel Aviv; Jan. 29; (Cybertech)
Head of Israel's National Cyber Directorate Yigal Unna at the Cybertech 2020 conference in Tel Aviv; Jan. 29; (Cybertech)

Israeli officials and CEOs are slated to appear alongside their Emirati and American counterparts at a major cyber conference on Wednesday, an indication of the role the country’s cyber expertise plays in its expanding ties with other nations.

Cybertech New York, the first time the Israeli-founded international conference will be held in the city, will feature Director-General of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate Yigal Unna, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, and Wiz Co-Founder Assaf Rappaport.

UAE cybersecurity head Mohamed al-Kuwaiti and Police Telecommunications head Hamad Khalifa Al Nueimi are also scheduled to speak.

From the American side, former CIA director David Petraeus, past US Cyber Command chief Michael Rogers, and New York’s likely next mayor Eric Adams will be giving addresses at the conference.

Security and communications officials from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Thailand, Serbia, Spain, and Italy are also set to participate.

Cybertech was founded by Israeli defense correspondent Amir Rapaport in Tel Aviv in 2014. “I think they see it as very related to Israel, but we definitely don’t present it as an Israeli event,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Cybertech 2017 Conference and Exhibition, in Tel Aviv, January 31, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Subsequent Cybertech conferences in Israel have attracted as many as 20,000 attendees and featured addresses by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Governments around the world began asking Rapaport to bring Cybertech to their region, leading to conferences in Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok, Panama City, and Rome.

The first Cybertech in Africa is scheduled to take place in Kigali, Rwanda, in late 2022.

“It’s not about Israel, it’s about the cyber world,” Rapaport told The Times of Israel ahead of the event. “But because Israel is very important in this specific domain, it’s considered to be the second-largest cyber event in the world.”

Preparing for peace

Israel’s cyber expertise helped lay the groundwork for normalization agreements with its Arab partners and has been a component in the expansion of those ties.

“Israel had cyber connections also before the Abraham Accords,” said Rapaport.

“Normalization comes from a desire on the ground. The fact that we are doing business with them creates a situation where it is easier to establish relations with Israel,” explained Alon Shahak, former head of the Cyber Sector at the Israel Export Institute who is currently with Deutsche Telekom Israel.

Illustrative: A ceremony for the incoming head of Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 in the Gelilot base, north of Tel Aviv, on April 6, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In April, the first Cybertech Dubai conference was held, featuring senior Israeli cyber officials. Organizers pledged to hold another conference in Dubai in 2022.

In July, Israel signed a cybersecurity cooperation agreement with Morocco.

Israel’s prominence in the field also contributes to its ties with the US, which is extremely concerned about China’s advantage in fields like AI.

“America is looking for allies, and Israel is not just another country,” said Rapaport. “Israel is more important than Germany, more important than the UK, because of its technology.”

Amir Rapaport (By Shilorap123/ Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

At the same time, there are drawbacks to Israel’s cyber leadership. Some Israel-linked companies have been implicated in controversial activity, embarrassing the country.

Israel’s NSO Group has been at the center of allegations that governments are abusing electronic surveillance technology to spy on political opponents, human rights activists and journalists.

Cyber superpower

Israel is seen as one of the world’s leading cyber powers, on par with the US, China, and Russia. “Forty percent of global private investments in cyber reach Israel, and one-third of the unicorn companies belong to Israelis,”  Eviatar Matania, founder of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, told Al-Monitor.

“These are real numbers of a global power,” he continued. “This is the first time we are there with absolute numbers, and not just per capita.”

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

In the first half of 2021, Israeli cybersecurity companies raised $3.4 billion in 50 deals and seven of them became unicorns, or private companies valued at over $1 billion, the Israel National Cyber Directorate said.

The half-year figure accounts for 41% of the total funds raised by cybersecurity firms worldwide

Among other factors, Rapaport attributed Israel’s prominence in the cyber field to the threats facing the country. “We started in the early ’90s, before anyone even used the term cyber,” he said.

He also pointed at service in IDF units like 8200 and 81 as important incubators for future cyber pioneers. “The best attacker may also be the best defender,” he noted.

“They are released from these units at 21 years old when they have operational experience,” said Shahak. “I won’t say it’s exactly like combat soldiers, but they do have a lot of tools and a lot of knowledge about the various threats in the world that can be used afterward to defend against those threats.”

The close cooperation of industry, military and academia in Israel is a further factor in the country’s prominence in the cyber field, Rapaport said.

Netanyahu led the push to create government cyber bodies.

The National Cyber Bureau was established in 2012 and was responsible for leading the strategy, national policy, and the technological buildup of Israeli cyberspace; the National Cyber Security Authority was established in 2016 as the central operational body for the defense of the cyber network in Israel, what was supposed to operate alongside the national cyber bureau.

In December 2017, Israel’s two cybersecurity units were merged into one unit — the Israel National Cyber Directorate — that is responsible for all aspects of cyber defense in the civilian sphere, from formulating policy to building technological power to cyber defense.

Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report. 

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