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'It's Not a Black Swan, It's a Mammoth': Coronavirus Dictates New Reality for Israeli Army

One senior officer says implications of coronavirus crisis could be more profound than 9/11

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli Border Police officer at a checkpoint.
An Israeli Border Police officer at a checkpoint.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During the past few days public health experts in Israel have described two major bottlenecks in the battle against coronavirus. The first concerns the paucity of tests done on possible patients; the second concerns the difficulty in identifying, locating and isolating people who have been in the close vicinity of people found to be ill. Clearly a large part of Israel’s citizenry is attentive to the reports in the media, but relatively simple monitoring of credit-card usage and pinpointing mobile phones can help issue a swift warning to anyone who has been in a place and time identified as dangerous, obligate him to isolate himself and maybe thereby to some extent slow down the spread of the virus.

These are techniques that can be applied, and they are currently being employed for other uses like fighting terror or solving crimes. In effect, the worldwide breakthroughs in “fusing” the relevant information to put together an extensive intelligence picture and, accordingly, rapid action were achieved in Israel in the early 2000s. This happened in a joint effort by the various security organizations as part of the fight against the suicide terrorists during the second intifada. Later, these methods were used by the Americans and subsequently became the daily bread of police forces and security services around the world.

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However, these measures also entail considerable and unusual infringement of citizens’ privacy, in circumstances in which there is no suspicion of their having committed a crime or harming to state security. It is no wonder that the two organizations most adept at these methods, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces, are not keen to offer to do the work. Apparently in the Shin Bet they are concerned about harm to its elevated, politically neutral status, and possible harm to democracy if it is assigned these missions. In the IDF they are wary of using “the people’s army,” which relies on soldiers doing compulsory service, for similar missions.

On the assumption that the virus will continue to spread and the government will want to undertake extraordinary measures of this sort, apparently it will require close legal oversight. Moreover, the IDF and Shin Bet would prefer that the Israel Police deal with this, even if it needs to borrow the means and even personnel to do so. Military Intelligence Unit 8200 is not going to rummage around cellular data to check who was sitting in a Tel Aviv café at what time of day. Graduates of the unit who are about to be demobilized could conceivably be put to the task, if an alternative solution is not found by then.

However, it is possible that this discussion is becoming superfluous. The increasingly firm understanding among experts is that the official number of patients suffering from the disease (about 100, by press time) is lower than the true number – that it does not reflect the many people who have the virus, hundreds if not thousands, who simply have not been tested and diagnosed yet. In such circumstances, much farther-reaching steps could come up for discussion, like those that were adopted in South Korea and Taiwan – measures that according to the reports from East Asia, indeed delayed the virus’ spread considerably.

If there is a decision to seal off parts of the country and even impose a curfew, the only organization that will be able to help the police and local authorities, both in enforcement and supplying food and medicine to the population, is the IDF. Therefore, a dramatic call-up of reservists will be required, along with extensive deployment of the Home Front Command. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and the IDF brass should already be preparing for this possibility. Otherwise, it will turn out that Israel is lagging too far behind the spreading virus.

At the moment, the army is for the most part busy protecting itself – attempting to reduce the rate of the spread of the virus within its ranks and making preparations that will try to ensure the functioning of sensitive units – combat flight squadrons, submarines and others – even under extreme conditions in which a large part of the population is infected with corona. In a number of units, they have already put into effect initiated furloughs, with the intention of keeping the soldiers on base for longer periods in the future.

A civilian or a reservist who visits the bureaus of senior IDF officers, operation rooms or sensitive units these days is required to sign a form upon entering. They have to commit that they did not return from abroad in the past two weeks, do not have a fever and have not spent time in the presence of sick people.

In the defense organization they already understand that the coronavirus is a classic instance of a “black swan” scenario, which seems to come out of nowhere and scrambles the whole deck of cards. “This isn’t a black swan, it’s a mammoth,” says one senior officer, who agrees that the repercussions of the coronavirus could yet prove to be far-reaching, long-term and even more so than the September 11 terror attack.

For the IDF, there is another danger inherent in the developments: The ambitious multi-year plan that has been formulated by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has come up against a huge and unexpected obstacle. The launch of the multi-year plan has already been delayed because of the three elections and the big deficit in the national budget, which has been estimated at a minimum of 20 billion shekels.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past a nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past a nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 12. Credit: AFP

The IDF has managed to advance some of the projects by means of a one-time addition of 2 billion shekels that was approved by the transitional government. Now, however, when the price of the systematic neglect of the health system and the shortage of hospital beds are destined to be revealed in all their severity, and when the economy is fearing a recession, the army is facing much harder competition for resources.

This is what happened to Benny Gantz as chief of staff at the beginning of the previous decade: a temporary change in priorities, after the social protest in the summer of 2011, made it difficult for the army and two multi-year plans were buried without a trace.

Still, the IDF’s argument will be stated with fervor in the coming months, even if the politicians don’t have time or attention now for long-range decisions. The General Staff will present “momentum,” the Israeli military's multi-year strategic plan, as an insurance policy, necessary for protecting Israel’s national security.

In the past decade, it will be argued, there has been considerable improvement in the operational capabilities of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah and to a lesser extent the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the withdrawal by the United States from the nuclear agreement has enhanced the need for planning for a regional clash that will also include Iran.

Without a drastic improvement in the IDF’s capability, it will be difficult to maintain the qualitative gap between Israel and the enemy. According to the army, the result in the case of a war will be prolongation of fighting for many weeks, during which the IDF will have difficulty ensuring a decisive victory and Israel will pay a far steeper price in losses and economic damage.

The cabinet has not yet found time to discuss the multi-year plan in depth. In preliminary discussions with the elected officials, Kochavi presented a diagram showing the narrowing of the capability gaps between the IDF and its enemies. He revived the expression coined by Ehud Barak in his day, which described Israel as a villa in a jungle. The chief of staff argued that without authorization of the multi-year plan, the country will be in a situation in which the top floor of the villa is exposed and vulnerable.

The answer to this situation, according to the IDF, includes not only extensive acquisition of precise attack weaponry and missiles to intercept rockets (for systems like the Iron Dome and Arrow 3), but also massive equipping with new technological means, with extensive emphasis on the field of cyber. In light of the political situation, the discussion has not yet delved into details but it is not unlikely that the army will try to persuade the government of the need for a temporary increase in the deficit in order to advance the program – an idea to which the Budget Department at the Finance Ministry is very much opposed to.

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