Israeli national security is unquestionably weakened by the corona pandemic. Many IDF units are suffering from a shortage of manpower. And the assertion that preoccupation with corona will temper the behavior of Israel’s enemies is wishful and mistaken thinking.
The corona crisis is sounding alarm bells not only in the Israeli health sector, but in the national security realm as well. Consider the corona epidemic as a war that was forced on Israel. The situation has many similarities to a war employing chemical and biological agents.
It has become clear that there is not enough medical equipment to fight the corona virus in Israel: ambulances, protective gear and test kits. This recalls the repeated instances during previous decades where post-war commissions of inquiry found a lack of preparedness for emergencies. This recalls the report of General Yitzhak Brick, written about two years ago, about woeful IDF preparedness for war even today.
The government has tried to calm Israeli nerves by intimating that the IDF will intervene if the epidemic escalates. This is very problematic. The IDF certainly has additional facilities and equipment to deal with mass numbers of sick people and the organizational skills necessary to handle a mass emergency. But the Homefront Command was established to deal with earthquakes and missile attack on cities, not pandemics; and it is comprised largely of mobilized civilians. Their mobilization will weaken the civilian agencies currently on the front lines of fighting the virus.
Unquestionably, the pandemic weakens Israel’s national security. Many IDF units are suffering from a shortage of manpower because of infected soldiers and commanders, and others who have been placed in quarantine. While the virus seems mainly to affect older people, if the disease spreads the IDF’s ability to act swiftly may be affected too. There are many historical examples of armies disintegrating because of epidemic.
The training routine of many units has been altered to adapt to the new circumstances. Operations in densely populated areas of the West Bank has probably been reduced too. Maintaining “social distancing” is very problematic for the IDF. How are checkpoints supposed to function effectively in a situation of “social distancing”? How is training conducted without soldiers supporting one another on a on a long march?
Physical proximity and the close smell of sweat are the ingredients for camaraderie that is essential in forging effective combat units. “Social distancing,” on the other hand, may erode esprit de corps and the motivation to fight.
Fighting the corona pandemic is going to cost enormous amounts of money, in direct and indirect costs. At this stage it is impossible to put a price on elimination of the pandemic, but it is quite clear that in the post-corona period, Israel’s government will have to invest significantly to revive the economy and spur renewed growth. This means that in all probability there will be insufficient funds available to implement the IDF’s multi-year “Momentum” plan for military build-up; a plan which was laid-out by the IDF Chief-of-Staff last month requiring a NIS 20 billion budget increase for the IDF. And yet, Israel’s strategic environment presents challenges that justify significant additions to the defense budget.
The corona virus is striking at Israel’s enemies too, but the effects are not necessarily the same everywhere. Different societies have dissimilar vulnerabilities. The virus obviously does not affect enemy motivations to destroy the Jewish state. The proliferation of conspiracy theories holding Jews responsible for the corona virus only intensifies such motivation. Poverty and sickness among Israel’s neighbors usually lead to the recruitment of desperate people for suicide bombings.
The assertion that corona diverts enemy attentions from the conflict with Israel and tempers the behavior of Israel’s enemies – is, alas, wishful thinking; mainly of incorrigible optimists who have difficulty understanding the Middle East mind. Iran continues its campaign to evict America from Iraq, and its support of the Houthis in Yemen – despite the deadly results of the corona epidemic in Iran. Turkey continues its struggle to control Idlib. Its real constraint is Russian ambitions, not Corona. Nor is there any evidence of moderation in Assad’s behavior.
National cohesion is a prerequisite for winning war, and Israeli society is evincing outstanding national cohesion at present. Therefore, Israel has a decent chance at winning the war against corona. Unfortunately, it seems that Israel’s politicians are finding it hard to rise to the occasion and form a national unity government – which most Israelis desire and which Israeli surely needs at this time.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.