Foreign Report, the British weekly newsletter, last week cited Israeli sources in reporting that "100 Syrian missiles are aimed at Israel." The missiles, said the weekly, are equipped with payloads of VX nerve gas, "which causes burns and respiratory difficulties that end in death" as the publication put it.
That would appear to be an explosive and worrisome report, exposing a fundamental shift in Syrian intentions. But five years ago, on May 21, 1998, the same Foreign Report said: "Syria is aiming chemical-warhead missiles at Israel." Indeed, in 1988, then-opposition MK Yitzhak Rabin revealed that Syria had positioned ballistic missiles equipped with binary chemical warheads - twin chemical elements that when mixed create a lethal compound.
Since then, dozens of reports have dealt with Syria's armada of chemical weapons missiles. The technical data on the missiles has been published, as have specifications on range and accuracy. The Syrian ballistic missile threat has long been a permanent fixture taken into account for IDF planning and there have been no significant changes in recent years.
So, if there is nothing new in the information reported by Foreign Report, why did the "Israeli sources" find it necessary just now to present seemingly new, dangerous Syrian threats? Well, from the perspective of the Israeli defense establishment there is a very good reason to magnify the threat of the Syrian missiles. Sadly, the Iraqi missile threat is gone. For many years that threat was the excuse for allocating billions of dollars "to prepare" for the threat. A special new command - the Home Front - was established just for that purpose.
The only justification for handing out the protective kits with the gas masks to all the citizens of the state was the Iraqi missile threat. The hundreds of millions of shekels a year devoted to maintaining the masks and replacing them when necessary was only justified by the Iraqi biological and chemical threat. The expenditure of billions of dollars enabling the development of the anti-missile missile systems, of which the Arrow was but the first, was understandable because it was clear that the Iraqi threat required it.
The need for huge increases to the defense budget that the army asked for and received from the government in recent years was explained by the growing stockpile of non-conventional weaponry in Iraqi hands. And now, there's no more Iraqi threat and there's concern that someone might actually ask questions about the need to continue making huge investments in the anti-missile missile system against non-existent missiles.
The American defense establishment found itself in a similar situation at the end of the Cold War. Suddenly it turned out the Soviet missile threat had evaporated and there was a great danger that the demand would come up for cuts in the enormous budgets that had been devoted to developing defensive systems against those missiles. To avoid that, the American defense establishment found new ballistic missile threats.
Intelligence reports and research studies by think tanks close to the defense establishment pointed to a new danger - the ballistic missile threats from Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It didn't matter to anyone that the threat didn't really exist, because those three countries don't have missiles with the range to reach the U.S.
But the U.S. defense establishment scornfully rejected experts who said that the probability one of those countries would fire a missile at American territory was nil, even if it managed to develop missiles capable of hitting the U.S. With an impressive fear campaign, the American defense establishment managed to enlist enough politicians and public opinion to neutralize the serious threat - of budget cuts.
Apparently, we also have found a budget-cut solution in the form of Syrian missiles armed with chemical warheads. The fact that the threat existed long before the Iraqi chemical missile threat doesn't need to get in the way of a new campaign of fear-mongering. In the past the IDF learned how to cope with the existence of the Syrian missiles and preferred - justifiably - to base its response to them on deterrence and not on the development of defensive systems.
The IDF reckoned the Syrians would not dare launch ballistic missiles topped with chemical warheads at Israel because it was clear to them that the price they'd pay would be so high, with painful IDF attacks on the Syrian rear, that it would not justify the first strike at Israel.
Therefore, the IDF reckoned, countering the Syrian threat with an anti-missile system and the distribution of protective kits to the citizens would be a huge waste. And the logic of that assessment has only increased over the years with the deterioration in the condition of the Syrian armed forces. But now there's no alternative but to change the approach, because otherwise questions could arise about the logic of the continuing investment in anti-missile defensive systems.
The defense establishment can relax. There's no need to even make any effort to frighten anyone. The chance that anyone in the political arena, Knesset or cabinet, will even bother to check if the disappearance of the Iraqi threat indicates a need to change IDF doctrine on missile threats or home front defense is nil.
The huge budgets for developing those systems will continue to flow without anyone getting in the way and we'll go on blithely refreshing gas masks. We have indeed learned from experience that there's no better protection against defense budget cuts than a threat of ballistic missiles.
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