At the height of the coronavirus epidemic, an independent team of experts has authored a series of proposals for Israel. Exceptionally, those involved insisted on seeing even in the huge world crisis opportunities and potential for reform and change. From his small office in the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot oversaw the work of the team.
Until about a year and a half ago, Eisenkot was used to being at the heart of things, certainly with the country enduring such a rough ride. This time, he focused his hyper-energy on drawing up a strategic document with the participation of dozens of experts. This is a regular hobby of his. In 2015, in his first months as head of the armed forces, he drew up a document for Israel Defense Forces strategy, a first effort to articulate rules and priorities, which his predecessors in the post had preferred to avoid. After his retirement, Eisenkot, together with his friend Prof. Gabi Siboni, wrote a proposal for an Israeli national security doctrine.
He’s a bit old school, Eisenkot. While the entire political arena is focusing on the attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to evade the flaming swords of his trial, he sits down and draws up plans and programs.
The current favorite of the op-ed pages in Haaretz, where he’s repeatedly mentioned as the latest hope against Netanyahu, Eisenkot is determined to treat the country’s strategic and economic situation with deep seriousness. For his team of experts he recruited, among others, former army officers (retired major generals Yishai Beer and Nitzan Alon, and Ran Shmueli, a retired brigadier general), a physician (Prof. Ran Goshen) and economists (Amir Levy, Yoram Yaacobi, Yoram Tietz). The final document was written by Eisenkot and Mor Yahalom, a researcher at INSS. Its main points were presented recently in two meetings with the national security adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, and his team.
The foreword to the document asserts that the crisis “not only generated multiple challenges, it also created opportunities for deep changes and for the strengthening of the society and the state.” The opportunities emerged in part in the wake of the epidemic. Others were relevant even without any connection to the virus, and some of them deal with improving the state’s functioning in future crises. Eisenkot states, in a manner whose unequivocal character is disputable, that the coronavirus “imperiled all segments of the society, and awareness of this connected the different segments.”
As an example, he cites the IDF’s mobilization to assist the Haredi and Arab cities that were struck hard by the virus. According to the former military chief, the army’s assistance created an opportunity to improve the relations of the army and the police with both of those population groups.
In his view, this is an opportunity to further a model that he has been exploring in depth since leaving the army: the introduction of universal civilian service, so that anyone who is not drafted, such as most of the Haredim and the country’s Arab population, will do volunteer work within various civilian frameworks, such as the education system, health system and firefighting services. In addition, the team recommends that all those who do not do military service be given basic training in emergency areas to help the state cope with disasters.
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Other recommendations: to systematize Israel’s national security doctrine by means of basic documents (it’s hard to see the present political arena mobilizing for this) and to update the defense budget in a multi-year format in the light of the economic crisis generated by the coronavirus epidemic (which looks like an indirect admission of the need to make cuts in it).
Eisenkot, who was against the idea of Israel signing a defense pact with the United States, suggests that an effort be made to sign “an updated special relations agreement.” This would include an alliance in the sphere of technological innovation, cooperation in the event of natural disasters and epidemics, and modes of cooperation in regional affairs. The team’s recommendation does not talk about an American military commitment to Israel, such as Netanyahu sought to promote in the midst of the recent succession of elections – an idea broadly opposed in the defense establishment, for fear it would restrict Israel’s freedom of action in wartime.
According to the authors of the document, the coronavirus epidemic heightened the need for employment and economic growth as “the most urgent issue in the Middle East.” In their view, “Israel and its neighbors have an opportunity to create an economic zone that will provide jobs, further self-reliance and enable the exploitation of each country’s relative advantages.” That region should include Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Greece and Cyprus, the authors of the report say, but also be receptive to other neighboring countries joining. They recommend the promotion of cooperative projects in health, tourism, agriculture, high-tech and more.
In the realm of health, the document recommends the development of tools and technologies to identify “hot spots” where epidemics could break out, to upgrade the work of the laboratories – an area that turned out to be a problematic bottleneck in coronavirus testing – to improve training of medical personnel and in emergencies to make use of med students in posts that will ease the overload the system faces.
The Eisenkot document contains a host of other detailed recommendations relating to the economy, technology and immigrant absorption. Perhaps the next government, or the one after it, will find time at some future date to discuss it seriously.