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The defense establishment has reported that, based on a series of tests carried out in recent days on the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system, it will be possible to supply the Israel Defense Forces (and, more important, the town of Sderot) with an initial, operational battery as early as this May. Also, Haaretz reported a few days ago on last week's decision by the cabinet to increase funding for the provision of protective kits (gas masks) to every citizen in the country, beginning at the end of next month.

These are important steps toward improving the protection Israel gives its citizens. However, it will probably take another year, at least, to deploy a meaningful number of intercept systems in the Negev and along the northern border. And according to the planned rate of gas-mask distribution, it will take three years to complete that undertaking. If Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas will only agree to wait politely, we will go into a war three years down the road in much better shape.

The first signs of a change in the enemy's combat strategy were apparent as early as the first Gulf War, in 1991, when 39 Scud missiles launched from Iraq over the course of more than a month sent Israelis scurrying for their sealed rooms. Hezbollah continued the shelling - by means of short-range Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon - during Israel's Operation Accountability (1993) and Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996). The enemy's use of rockets and missiles was aimed at bypassing a confrontation with Israel's definitive superiority in air power, intelligence capability and technology.

In the first years of the second intifada, which began in late 2000, the Palestinians still resorted to terrorism in the form of suicide bombers. But when the IDF and the Shin Bet security service came up with reasonable responses to this, Hamas copied Hezbollah by firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, particularly after Israel's disengagement in 2005.

The IDF, quite logically, will continue to rely in large measure on a combination of aerial attacks and ground maneuvers, including conquest of territory. However, in the face of a possible onslaught involving thousands of missiles and tens of thousands of rockets, this will not be enough. In such a scenario, Israel will have to rely on four main interconnected elements: intelligence (evaluation and prevention); an offensive operational plan; an active defense (the multilayered missile interception system - consisting of the Arrow, the Magic Wand, which is still being developed, and the Iron Dome); and passive defense (air-raid sirens, fortified security rooms in homes, gas masks). But the IDF's combat doctrine vis-a-vis these different elements is still only in the development stages. The state comptroller warned about this state of affairs in a recent report.

A key question that arises in this context concerns the division of resources between defense and offense. A report on the country's security conception, drawn up by the Meridor Committee in 2006, notes the importance of defense against missiles. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has also referred to this repeatedly, since taking up his portfolio again two and a half years ago. At that time, he said that in light of the bad experience following the Gaza evacuation, Israel will have to postpone additional withdrawals from the West Bank until an effective antimissile system can be developed. Surprisingly, the National Security Council, for example, barely devoted time to this subject.

Even in an optimistic scenario - in which Israel develops all the necessary intercept systems and allocates sufficient funding to their acquisition and deployment - a critical time gap has developed in the face of a militant Iranian approach. Tehran's approach is based on attacking Israel "from far and from near" by means of Qassams and Katyushas from Gaza and Lebanon, and in the extreme case, also with Shihab missiles launched from Iran itself. In such a case, the result would be that the Arabs (and the Iranians) will be one step ahead of Israel in the campaign.

Unless the IDF has an unknown ace up its sleeve, every future clash will entail a massive assault on the home front, in a war that will be hard to win, or in which it will be difficult to achieve a decisive "image of victory." This will necessitate precise planning in regard to the Israeli public's stamina and to the logical distribution of resources, in which offense does not always come at the cost of defense.

Progress on the home front

Thorough work has been carried out with respect to the home front in the three and a half years since the end of the Second Lebanon War; Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai is involved and knowledgeable in every phase of this process. Home Front Command has changed its conception radically: In contrast to the period of the war in the north, its focus is now on the needs of the civilian population. Coordination with local governments has also improved greatly, and the establishment of the National Emergency Authority is likely to be a positive development, despite its problematic infringement on powers now held by the National Emergency Economy.

Nevertheless, problems remain with equipment procurement, with the command-and-control capability of the rescue forces and in the municipalities' preparedness. After the rocket attacks on the Negev during Operation Cast Lead last year, the GOC Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, declared that the campaign had been carried out in "deluxe" conditions. Home Front Command will not be able to devote the same concentrated efforts and resources in an all-out, multi-front war.

End to zigzags

It is against this background that the decision of the cabinet last week about the gas masks should be seen. It was a logical decision following a six-year series of zigzags, from the collection of the gas masks, to their storage, to their partial redistribution and to the new decision on full distribution. According to the IDF, this will necessitate the doubling of the budget for the project: from NIS 1 billion to NIS 2 billion. Barak, Vilnai, Maj. Gen. Golan and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi have long recommended such a step. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not persuaded of its necessity until last week. Golan put forward the plan to distribute the protective kits to 60 percent of the population within three years, with the many attendant problems of such a move: the bureaucratic unwieldiness, the difficulty of supervising the implementation, the inequality between different regions of the country, and the possibilities that would open up for petitions to the High Court of Justice by those who would not be included among the 60 percent.

Netanyahu thus decided there would be no "levels of distribution": Everyone would get a gas mask. Barak undertook to find the money for half of the additional budget, NIS 500 million, by means of internal juggling of the defense budget. Netanyahu promised to come up with the other half.

This is good news for Israel Post, which won the tender to distribute the protective kits, and for their manufacturers, Shalon in Kiryat Gat and Supergum in Barkan, which will embark on a massive production process. In addition, a precedent was set: Veterans of Home Front Command maintain that they never saw the army spend a shekel of the defense budget on protective equipment. The money always came from external budgets.

The cabinet's decision was an essential move, says a senior defense source who has been following developments in Home Front Command for years.

"The decision simultaneously informs the country's citizens that the threat is being handled seriously and shows the enemy that we are prepared. Regarding the rate of development of the elements involved in our response to the threat," said the source, "widespread distribution of the masks is the only realistic option - particularly if there is a reasonable possibility that we will see escalation here in the years ahead."

One contributing factor here was undoubtedly the impact of the Winograd Committee, which investigated the management of the Second Lebanon War. After the severe criticism leveled at the Olmert government and the General Staff by the committee (and by the state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, in reports on the home front) - neither the politicians nor the generals have much stomach today for assuming unnecessary risks. Equipping the public is therefore the default option, though it also attests to the scale of the past failure. Owing to the delay in developing a response to the rockets, protection will probably still focus, initially, on gas masks and sealed rooms, even if their effectiveness is limited in the case of attack with conventional, as opposed to chemical, rockets.

In fact, the question of the distribution budget is far from resolved. A simple clarification with sources in the Finance Ministry reveals that it has not been apprised of the protective-kits decision, and is unaware of a budget source that has been earmarked to underwrite the extra half-a-billion shekels promised by the prime minister for this purpose. In general, treasury sources are amazed at the changing assessments of the defense establishment concerning the cost of the distribution project.

What will happen in the case of an emergency that necessitates immediate distribution of the masks? The Defense Ministry's agreement with Israel Post includes a clause that allows Home Front Command to take over this process should there be any urgency, and to distribute them itself via hundreds of stations across the country. In the last round of discussions, four years ago, about storing the masks in depots, the army made two promises to the political echelon: that Military Intelligence would provide sufficient warning before there is a concrete risk that chemical missiles will be fired, and that it would possible to distribute gas masks to the entire population within a few days.

The state comptroller was severely critical of this forecast. Now Home Front Command is promising that in an emergency, it will be possible to complete full distribution of the gas masks within a few weeks.

Three years ago, Israel surprised itself by not anticipating that its sharp response to the abduction of reserve soldiers would lead to a protracted war with Hezbollah. According to surveys provided to the U.S. Congress, the nuclear facility that North Korea built for the Syrians - which Israel bombed in 2007 - was unknown to Western intelligence until a late stage. Israel will have to take into account the limitations of its intelligence in providing an early warning.

Summer 2010 is the defense establishment's target date for completing home front preparedness, but a review of the threats shows that such preparedness, however much improved it will be in comparison to summer 2006, will still be only partial.