Israelis Are in Denial About the Next Missile War

Israel is short of bomb shelters and Hezbollah could have chemical weapons: The next war will kill our black swan, one way or another.

Psychologists have a host of categories for the ways people cope with bad news. 

Some defense mechanisms are deemed primitive and less useful, like rationalization. Others are considered more mature, like sublimation. But all involve avoiding confronting reality.

What applies to humans can apply to countries as well. Just think of the U.S. South recalling the Civil War as a fight over states’ rights rather than a nasty defense of slavery, or Egypt celebrating the Yom Kippur War as a military victory.  

The defense mechanisms Israelis employ are denial and repression. Unfortunately, Israeli denial isn't about rewriting the past to make it more palatable. It's about confronting a frightening future.

The defense mechanism came to play again this week when the State Comptroller issued a report documenting Israel’s failures to prepare the home front for the next missile war with Hezbollah or Hamas.

More than a quarter of the population has no access to a bomb shelter. Many more have inadequate one shelters, reckons the watchdog.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman hinted on Thursday that the Air Force’s last reported raids on Syria were to prevent Syria from transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

They're embarrassed, we're in peril

The media and political class’ reaction to the State Comptroller’s report was to point out how embarrassing it was for the army and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as if the report’s conclusions weren’t our problem.

But it is our problem. Bibi may be embarrassed but two million of us could be trapped under rubble.

A Hezbollah fighter stands guard as Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech shown on a screen during a rally marking the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, Sunday, May 24, 2015.
Mohammed Zaatari, AP

In the same vein, Lieberman’s hint that Hezbollah could have chemical weapons was reported – and, without blinking, the media moved on to his remarks on foreign NGOs and other, less terrifying digestible issues.

It’s not just Israelis who are in denial. So is the world. Foreign investors are pouring billions of dollars into Israel every year. Intel just finished a giant semiconductor plant in range of Hamas rockets, and the credit rating agency Fitch raised Israel to an A-plus last month.

And what about war? “Although Israel's borders are currently relatively quiet, conflicts with military groups in surrounding countries and territories flare up intermittently and can be damaging to economic activity,” answered Fitch before moving on to other subjects like debt-to-GDP ratios.

The truth about Hezbollah

Denial and repression are understandable. The last decade of missile wars have been more smoke than fire, as far as Israel is concerned.

In spite of the media frenzy during the conflicts, the facts are that less than 100 Israelis have been killed in missile attacks, and most of those occurred before the Iron Dome missile-defense system was deployed.

In each case, the economy slowed or even contracted during the fighting, but quickly bounced back.

The next war is almost certainly going to be different, especially if it is with Hezbollah.

When the Shi'ite movement fought Israel in 2006, it had 13,000 or so short- and medium-range rockets and the land war was fought in Lebanese territory.

Today the IDF thinks Hezbollah has more like 100,000 missiles, many of them with much bigger payloads, longer ranges and great accuracy. Hezbollah also claims it is ready for a ground assault into Israel.

Israeli soldiers stand near Iranian rockets for Hezbollah that, according to the IDF, were found on the Antigua-flagged Francop vessel, intercepted in the Mediterranean 160 km from Israel. Ashdod November 4, 2009.
Amir Cohen, Reuters

The 100,000 number is suspiciously round, but Hezbollah is certainly better armed and has learned a thing or two in Syria about ground warfare. The army is taking the threat seriously enough that, as Haaretz reported last month, it is preparing a plan to evacuate civilians in the far north in case of war.

Iron Dome isn’t capable of intercepting thousands of rockets launched in short intervals. The comforting scenes of enemy missiles being shot down that we experienced in Operation Protective Edge will be a lot fewer in the next conflict.

The next war will inevitably involve a lot more casualties than Israel has experienced any time since 1973, and this time, a lot of them will be civilians. The economy will suffer much more severe destruction and loss of business confidence than in the past.

The illusion that Israel is an island of stability may be shattered with an impact that no one can predict.

You could say that denial about the next war is a practical response to a black swan – an event so rare that it can’t be priced in by markets or by ordinary people, even though its consequence are massive and upend all our reasonable expectations about the future. But if anything the black swan is the slim odds that somehow Israel will get through the next decade without the fateful war.