Pattrick Smellie: How Israel could wage 'war' on New Zealand

PATTRICK SMELLIE
Last updated 18:23 04/01/2017
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says there will be "consequences" for the Israel-New Zealand relationship.

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OPINION: It's unlikely the New Zealand Defence Force top brass were quaking in their boots at the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's threat that New Zealand's actions support for a United Nations Security Council resolution criticising Israel amounted to a "declaration of war".

The prospect of an actual physical invasion of New Zealand by Israel is laughable. Sheer distance, let alone any other issue, makes such an attack unthinkable. 

Neither Israel's airlift nor naval capabilities could manage such a stretched deployment, especially as this would almost certainly be a go-it-alone exercise.  

Depending on who you listen to, the Netanyahu outburst could be interpreted as Israel feeling as if New Zealand was the one declaring hostilities. 

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Either way, New Zealand seriously irked Israel by co-sponsoring the resolution condemning Israel's provocative 'settlements' programme, for which Netanyahu warned there would be "consequences" in the Israel-New Zealand relationship. 

Far cooler diplomatic relations are inevitable. Israel may withdraw from active involvement in the New Zealand government's five-country working group on small, smart, innovation-driven economies. For Spark's chief executive, Simon Moutter, the momentum achieved in a private sector-led trade mission to Israel last year may be jeopardised.

However, there is one arm of New Zealand's defence establishment where Netanyahu's war talk will almost certainly have sent a shiver up the spine. That is the Government Communications and Security Bureau, the agency responsible for protecting the country against cyber attacks.

Here, Israel undoubtedly has the capacity to do real damage to New Zealand infrastructure, interests, and businesses if it chose to.

No one is saying that's what will happen, but cyber capability has become the so-called "fifth realm of warfare" in recent years and Israel is a world leader at it. The Israeli Defence Forces pour such huge resource into this area that the United States' National Security Agency has considered whether Israel should be regarded as "an electronic and cyber warfare proliferator".

The NSA should know: it was almost certainly the US and Israeli governments that worked together on the Stuxnet virus, used to destroy centrifuges crucial to Iran's nuclear programme back in 2010. 

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So, the capacity for Israel to quietly test the vulnerability of key elements of New Zealand infrastructure – telecommunications and electricity networks, secure communications channels for diplomats and defence personnel, and the like – is real.

Assuming Israel, or any other country for that matter, would bother, how well equipped is New Zealand to deal with such threats? 

Cyber-security is certainly top of mind for telcos and has been for years. Thousands of cyber-attacks bounce off the firewalls erected by the likes of Spark, Vodafone and other internet service providers every day of the week. Some are far more serious than these companies will ever publicly acknowledge.

To help combat the proliferation of malicious cyber activity – much of it by private hackers seeking havoc rather than governments seeking whatever secrets we may possess – the GSCB has been progressively making available Cortex, an advanced, tightly held cyber protection system.

Cortex is already used by public and private organisations defined as "key economic generators, niche exporters, research institutions, and operators of key national infrastructure", as well as government departments.

Plans are afoot to roll it out more widely, even to small and medium-sized enterprises judged to be at risk of cyber attack. A newly appointed Cyber Security Skills Taskforce, appointed in November, is working to "address the shortage of cyber professionals in New Zealand".

In a more uncertain world, where many of the norms of international diplomacy and national interest are being challenged and redefined, this is one area where New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent about attack.

*Comments are now closed on this article

* This article has been edited for clarity since it was first published.

 

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