A small contingent from the United States Department of Homeland Security is in Israel this week to sign commitments to expand cybersecurity cooperation between the two countries, and to discuss Israel’s progress toward joining the US visa waiver program.
According to a DHS official, the series of cybersecurity agreements include three general areas of cybersecurity cooperation between the US and Israel: collaboration on combating terrorist financing, creating an institutional vehicle to enable cyber-specific research and development, and collaboration on transportation cybersecurity.
DHS Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy and Plans Robert Silvers arrived in Israel on Sunday, and on Tuesday signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on financial crime with the Defense Ministry’s National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing.
The MOU was signed on behalf of DHS’ Homeland Security Investigations. In November, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo traveled to Israel to announce a partnership targeting financial crime. The new MOU is separate but expected to be complementary to the Treasury initiative.
Silvers is also expected to announce two commitments with Israel National Cyber Directorate Director-General Gaby Portnoy on bilateral research and development and transportation cybersecurity, to be signed on Wednesday at the CyberTech Global conference in Tel Aviv, according to a DHS official.
Silvers, who on Monday sat down with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem, said that the joint commitments with the Cyber Directorate are part of a framework agreement to provide enabling infrastructure, rather than specific in their technological or goal details.
“What we’re doing is setting up a framework,” he said. “And then what we do is we put the engineers in the room together and they determine what are the right priorities to jointly pursue. I know we’ve talked about things over time, like Internet of Things, cybersecurity in the aviation and other transportation sectors. This creates a vehicle for the experts to go pursue [those areas of interest].”
The partnership will only focus on defensive technologies and is not intended to develop offensive capabilities.
“[Our commitment] will include defensive technology. At the Department of Homeland Security, our mission is to serve as network defenders,” Silvers said.
Besides the requirement to be defensive, there are no set guardrails around the types of technology the partnership will focus on, but rather proposed projects will be evaluated for alignment with bilateral priorities.
“We’ll evaluate every proposal on its own merits, and we’re going to do projects that make sense for both countries and both institutions, including the Department of Homeland Security and including the [Cyber Directorate] and the Ministry of Public Security,” Silvers said. “Where there’s alignment, we’re going to pursue that.”
In a commitment to joint research and development, the parties plan to expand the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) program, which is a jointly-funded initiative running since 1977 for scientific collaboration between Israel and the United States.
Silvers said the new instantiation will add the Cyber Directorate to the BIRD program, which has previously been run between DHS and the Public Security Ministry. The Cyber Directorate’s version of BIRD is expected to focus on cybersecurity and emerging technologies, particularly related to ransomware and securing critical infrastructure, said an Embassy source.
“What we’re actually doing now is adding the Israel National Cyber Directorate to [the BIRD] agreement because we want to be able to go deeper on cybersecurity research and development,” Silvers said. “We have a dedicated science and technology center within our Department of Homeland Security, and we bring them to the table and their expertise, their engineers to advance those kinds of priorities.”
Silvers did not comment on the amount of funding expected to be provided by either Israel or the US to the expanded program.
As a second commitment, the US’ Transportation Security Administration — housed under DHS — and Israel will enhance cybersecurity collaboration in the realm of transportation.
Providing another framework for to-be-specific initiatives, Silvers and Portnoy are expected to sign a statement of intent to enhance information sharing, joint exercises, and research and development related to securing air and ground transportation.
As an additional measure, the US and Israel are expected to commit to expert exchanges in a number of cutting-edge fields, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, homomorphic encryption, and Position Navigation and Timing, according to a US Embassy source.
Signing the agreements, Silver said, is in part recognition of and in part the continuation of long-standing cooperation between the US and Israel in the cyber realm.
“[We want] to acknowledge the incredible partnership that has existed for decades between the United States and Israel in securing cyberspace,” Silvers said. “Our relationship with Israel is extremely close on cybersecurity matters.”
“Our model in cybersecurity is increasingly one of operational collaboration,” Silvers said. “It’s not enough for government and companies to just meet and acknowledge a partnership. They have to be standing shoulder to shoulder and defending networks together day-to-day, hour-to-hour and we’ve set up that infrastructure within DHS. Israel has its own advanced cyber ecosystem and I think there’s a lot to learn together.”
Silvers is also in Jerusalem to discuss ongoing efforts to bring Israel into the US’ Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to join 39 other countries in visiting the US without a visa. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has set a goal of bringing Israel into the program by 2023.
“One of the key priorities of my visit is to advance discussions and keep the momentum going on both countries’ goal of having Israel join the Visa Waiver Program,” said the Under Secretary. “Our goal is to have Israel join as soon as the country meets all the program requirements. And I’ll be meeting with Israeli government counterparts to discuss that shared priority which would be an incredible and sweet success for both countries.”
Silvers said that a working-level delegation from DHS visited several sites across Israel about two weeks ago, in order to “understand Israel’s border security and other security programs and to work with the Israelis towards meeting all the program requirements.”
There are two main obstacles that Israel and the US will be tasked with ironing out in order to allow for Israel’s inclusion in the waiver program. The first will be lowering visa refusal rates for Israelis to below three percent by October 2022. Israeli Ambassador the UN Gilad Erdan said last August that the current rate is roughly 4.5%.
The other hurdle will be granting the US access to Israeli criminal records in order to adjudicate visa requests from citizens with rap sheets — something that will require Knesset legislation, Shaked has explained.
Once the rejection rate decreases, “other obstacles will be solvable,” Erdan said in August, specifying that these include Israel’s sometimes problematic treatment of Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, which the US has identified as a barrier to the Jewish state’s inclusion in the waiver program.
Jacob Magid contributed to this article.