The rocket-intercepting system Iron Dome burst forth into the world a few weeks ago. Defense Minister Ehud Barak gathered senior defense officials, the Israel Defense Forces' top brass and captains of industry to the festive inauguration. Everyone was happy that the tests had succeeded, showing - as seen on television - that an answer had been found to that fatal nuisance, the Qassam rocket.
On Wednesday, however, Amos Harel made clear in his report in Haaretz that the celebrations had little to do with reality. The system needs more work and the first operational battery will be set up in three months at an air force base.
Barack Obama and other dignified guests had been taken to Sderot to witness the town's suffering under Qassam barrages. But the townspeople's expectations that they would be the first to be protected by Iron Dome have been shattered. Now our defense chiefs are telling them that a situation evaluation will be necessary to figure out where to put the system. The mutual backslapping over the system's success and the fight over who deserves the credit have given way to mutual accusations and complaints.
The IDF and Defense Ministry, as well as the premiers and defense ministers above them, were wrong in the years before the Second Lebanon War to scorn the enemy's rockets and missiles. Budget and technological difficulties were cited to reject initiatives to develop weapons that would counter the enemy's arsenal.
About three years ago the defense establishment finally decided to do something about filling the breach in the home front's defense. Iron Dome for short-range rockets and Magic Wand for longer-range fire were designed to complement the Patriot and Arrow missile-defense systems. These systems might even join U.S. naval and ground forces assisting Israel in an emergency.
But things have changed in the south since the decision to develop and produce anti-rocket systems. After the cease-fire that ended Operation Cast Lead, relative calm has prevailed on the Gaza border. Hamas prefers, for its own reasons, to refrain from fire and is trying to enforce this on other groups as well. But this change is not irreversible. The south could catch fire again for several reasons, including Hamas' relations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Egypt, or as a chain reaction to a terror attack by another organization.
At the same time, the north is in danger of renewed escalation. So far it has been a war of words, but the next stage could be a war of missiles. Perhaps Iron Dome would be needed more in the north than in the south, or in both sectors at the same time. Or it might be needed in the south, not to protect Sderot but other communities if Hamas targets them on the assumption that Sderot is no longer vulnerable.
The cost of producing launchers and missiles against cheap rockets is extremely high. We need money for building attack forces, protecting civilians and other defense measures, not just Iron Dome. The dilemma is more real than its packaging. Israelis deserve not merely defense, but a leadership that speaks to them seriously, without spreading illusions.
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