A Sound Antimissile Policy

The tendency to prioritize soldiers’ safety over securing civilians and strategic objectives may have run its course.

The disclosure that the Iron Dome antimissile defense system will be employed to defend Israel's military installations rather than civilian population centers has occasioned protest and revived the sensitive issue of who merits greater protection: the civilian population or the military. Normally, the military is expected to place itself in harm's way to shield the civilian population; nonetheless, in this situation, the Iron Dome deployment policy, despite its ostensive disregard for civilian losses, is essentially sound.

Wars are won by destroying the enemy's military capability - not by inflicting greater casualties upon the civilian population. One of Hitler's first mistakes in World War II was his decision to divert the focus of the Battle of Britain from destruction of the Royal Air Force to blitzing British cities. He thus allowed the RAF, which at one point was reeling from attrition of both pilots and aircraft, to recover, and denied Germany the air supremacy critical for a cross-channel invasion. Britain paid a painful price in bombing deaths and destruction in the Blitz, but it lived to fight on.

Israel's enemies plan to rely on their sizable missile arsenals in the event of an all-out war. These missiles will be launched not only against the Israeli civilian rear, but also against military installations and mobilization centers for reservists. If airbases are rendered unusable or mobilization is stalled by these missiles, Israel's prospects for victory - a victory essential for the survival of the country and for defining its post-war negotiating position - will be diminished. Given the size of the area to be defended and the cost ratio of attack missiles to defensive missiles (Katyushas or Grads are a lot cheaper than the intercepting missile ), Israel cannot offer total protection to its citizens with an antimissile system. At best it can mitigate the damage with such passive defense as shelters and fortified rooms. Most importantly, it can desist from the suicidal policy of passively acknowledging the growing concentration of its population in vulnerable Dan region apartment towers, and proactively revert to a policy of population dispersion.

Yet there is something salutary in the negative reactions to Iron Dome priorities, as they perhaps signal that the recent tendency among the public to prioritize soldiers' safety over securing civilians and strategic objectives may have run its course. Ironically this policy was dictated by domestic opinion rather than in the Israel Defense Forces. The most grotesque case of such an imbalance occurred prior to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which temporarily reduced Palestinian rocket fire into Israel (currently ticking up again ): A basic training base near Ashkelon was hit by two rockets. Though there were no fatalities, the reaction evinced by some of the new inductees' parents bordered on the hysterical. They personally showed up at the base to demand that their children be moved out of range, as no military purpose, they argued, was served by their presence. The IDF caved in and removed the soldiers, thereby sending a none-too-subtle message that IDF "children" - a word too frequently lavished on young adults performing military service - deserved preference over real children in areas equally or more exposed to Hamas bombardment. As long as the civilian population was not being evacuated and was expected to proceed with its normal routine, there was no justification for evacuating the training base.

The army's panicky response goes back to Lebanon, when the Four Mothers organization heartily promoted by Shelly Yachimovich - today a Knesset member, then a radio talk jockey - and military affairs correspondent Carmela Menashe exploited the dismay over military casualties in Lebanon to spearhead their agenda for withdrawal a decade ago from south Lebanon, a move that created the Hezbollahstan on our northern border.

It is not that the IDF considers its soldiers expendable - quite the contrary. For example, the army lavishes huge resources on a medical corps that in Cast Lead garnered a disproportionate share of combat medals for its field medicine miracles. However, an army cannot achieve results if it is overwhelmingly concerned with casualty avoidance.

Defense planners have desperately sought to avoid a new version of the Four Mothers. During the second intifada, soldiers moved from point to point in Judea and Samaria in armored "safari" vehicles while Israeli civilians riding in cars equipped to repel rocks but not bullets provided soft targets for Palestinian terror. For the latter, this was a no-brainer. The Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria were sufficiently motivated to take their lumps and stay put. (The most remarkable resilience under fire was displayed by the Gush Katif residents, who were most cruelly requited for their valor. ) Public opinion, however (at least not until the terror mega-atrocities of Sbarro, the Dolphinarium and the last straw of the Park Hotel seder bombing), would not countenance an "unacceptable" level of military casualties.

It was once argued that this attitude would change once we had quit Lebanon and Gaza for "sovereign" Israel. But this argument was found wanting in the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. In Lebanon a failed attempt was made to rely disproportionately on air power to avoid committing ground forces, while in Gaza the pleas of incoming Chief of Staff Yoav Galant to actively seek and destroy Hamas forces were rejected, resulting in the operation's early summation and incomplete success.

Both the IDF and Israel's civilian rear currently share the dangers of war. Each in turn will be required to display its resilience and sacrifice as military and strategic necessities, rather than as dictated by sentiment.

Dr. Amiel Ungar, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to Haaretz English Edition.