“This has been the best decade in Israel’s annals,” Israel’s interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted Dec. 29 at the final weekly government meeting of the year. “We have become hugely more powerful,” added the man who until recently also served as the country’s defense minister. The indicted Netanyahu, who has turned the Prime Minister’s Office into his personal buffer zone, also informed his assembled ministers and the media that he planned to lead the State of Israel in the coming years, as well, “to new and unprecedented security achievements.”
Indeed, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are rightly considered the strongest army in the Middle East. Israel is also the only state in the region armed with a nuclear bomb (according to foreign reports). Israeli intelligence enjoys a vaunted global reputation, as do the state’s state-of-the-art arms defense industries. So when all is said and done, can the past decade, which ran concurrently with Netanyahu’s term in office, be crowned “the best decade in Israeli annals” in terms of the state’s security?
The person most qualified to answer the question is the IDF’s supreme commander, and this is what IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said about Israel’s security situation at a Dec. 25 conference, just days before Netanyahu drew his rosy picture. “The Quds Force is operating there (in Iraq) on a daily basis … the country itself has turned into an ungoverned area. Advanced weapons are being smuggled by the Quds Force into Iraq on a monthly basis, and we can’t allow that,” Kochavi warned. He also pledged that Israel would not allow Iran to entrench itself in Iraq and along Israel’s northern border.
The Dec. 31 attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad by Iran-backed militias signals a further deterioration in the standing of Israel’s defense ally (the United States) in the Middle East in general and in Iraq in particular. In his speech several days earlier, Kochavi speculated that Israel would have “to deal” on its own with the situation in Iran and with its associates in the neighborhood. Israeli defense officials have already concluded that Netanyahu’s best friend in the White House has lost American deterrence capability vis-a-vis Iran.
Since there is no other way to block the threat of rockets and missiles, according to Kochavi, Israel’s “handling” of the situation would entail a massive assault on the enemy’s “urban space,” meaning on densely populated areas. Presumably, he added, Iran would respond in a similar vein. “Tremendous firepower will be directed at the [Israeli] heartland,” the senior officer warned, and advised “mental” readiness as well.
The IDF’s 22nd chief of staff did not provide his listeners with an instruction manual on how to prepare mentally for rocket barrages on multistory apartment buildings in the heart of Israel. Nonetheless, the desks of Israeli politicians are piled high with documents and reports pointing to severe flaws in the heartland’s physical preparedness for the types of scenarios Kochavi described. The serial candidate from Balfour Street, who has been responsible for the defense of the citizenry for the past decade, has not troubled himself with this truly existential issue. The three former IDF chiefs — Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — running for the Knesset in the rival Blue and White party and vying for the voters’ hearts and minds on March 2 also appear to prefer escapes to other regions.
As Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, the head of Israel’s Home Front Command, has said, Israel has known since 2006 that the enemy was developing extensive missile systems capable of launching continuous widespread barrages at Israel. Writing in the July 2019 issue of the IDF’s flagship publication, the “Dado Center Journal,’’ the general revealed that soon after he assumed his post in August 2017, he realized his command could turn out to be irrelevant in times of war. According to Yadai, the IDF had not defined the changes in the enemy’s capacity to threaten Israel’s civilian population in times of war, and the IDF’s general staff barely took these changes into consideration in its emergency contingencies. The possibility that Hezbollah or another terrorist organization could cripple the Israeli heartland, Yadai added, would overshadow every Israeli battlefield achievement.
The state’s failure to ready the homefront for war was exposed in all its severity in a report by the government’s watchdog agency, the state comptroller, issued after Israel's second war in Lebanon (2006) in which 41 Israeli civilians were killed, thousands wounded and hundreds of thousands evacuated from their homes. In a scathing report, the comptroller wrote that the executive echelons, including the prime minister, defense minister, army chiefs and Home Front commander had failed miserably in their decision-making, threat assessment and protection of civilians accordingly. A report issued by the comptroller in 2016 about Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge against Gaza also identified flaws in terms of civilian shelters, warning systems and even evacuation, which posed potential dangers to residents’ lives in times of war.
Since Kochavi took office a year ago, he has devoted special efforts to dealing with the homefront. In 2018, then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman adopted a 10-year plan dubbed “Shield of the Home Front,’’ which included improvements of shelters and security measures in some 300 communities located up to 45 kilometers from Israel’s northern border. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon pledged to transfer the first tranche of the budget, 500 million Israeli shekels ($145 million) by the end of 2019, but only one-quarter of the sum has been transferred. In light of Israel’s ongoing political chaos, it appears the home front will have to “mentally” prepare for the ongoing budget drought.
It is far more pleasant to hear that Netanyahu has transformed Israel into an empire than to read that 2.5 million of its residents, living in 700,000 homes (in which 27.5% of the population lives) lack proper defenses. Hollow boasts of “the fabulous decade” put the public in a far better mood than news that during an emergency, essential services will operate only at 35% capacity. All Israel’s citizens can do now is “mentally” prepare for disaster. Knesset members should ask themselves whether this situation is included in Netanyahu’s "unprecedented achievements." As a reminder, Netanyahu is now using these "achievements" as the reason why the Knesset should enable him to continue leading Israel, by granting him immunity from the charges on bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
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