The Preemptive Strike Returns

In the age of missiles, waiting for an enemy to strike first can prove too costly for the population. Now military and political top brass are rethinking the idea of hitting an enemy before receiving a first blow.

In the center of Tel Aviv, at the corner of King George and Bograshov Streets, is a small eatery whose sign keeps changing. Years ago, it took pride in the name "Six Days." Some years later it preferred to go by "Entebbe." Three decades on, such institutions are no longer immortalizing security events − rather, security events occur against the backdrop of restaurants ?(witness Sbarro, in Jerusalem?0. Recently a new sign appeared on the Tel Aviv eatery: "Agenda." On television, there is always talk of an agenda, usually a civil agenda, and the nation is fed up with eating in the company of past victories.

The past is threatening to return in a different way. Twenty steps down from that restaurant, one can find memorials to deadly attacks - the Italian bombing in 1940 and the Egyptian bombing in 1948, which killed scores of civilians. The Home Front defense drill held last week reflects a profound fear that the rare occurrences of the World War II years and those of the 1948 war will become a common trait of future conflicts.

The scenario is so realistic that it is expected to influence Israeli policy in its entirety and dictate the manner in which war is managed. The name of the exercise, "Turning Point 2," sounds like another installment in a film series. "Die Hard 8" or "Terminator 5" would have better suited the disaster film that was screened in the war room of the Home Front Command in Ramle.

In the old, two-story building - a reasonable facsimile of the Operations Division's bunker at General Staff Headquarters − state-of-the-art display screens, connected to the entire world, from North Dakota to the AyalonHighway, were installed. The disasters may be worse, but they can be seen immediately, and in much more vivid color.

At the center of the semicircle of chairs, facing alarmed reports of thousands of casualties, sat the head of Home Front Command, MajorGeneral Yair Golan ? a paratrooper, professional soldier, the son of a colonel in the Communications Corps, and the commander of the Nahal Brigade ? whom his colleagues consider to be an outstanding and gifted officer. If he completes his stint at Home Front without any wars or scandals, he will certainly advance from there to a more important position, such as GOC Central Command.

Next to Golan was a visitor, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai. Vilnai is a retired major general who nearly became chief of staff. Being deputy defense minister is not really anyone's desire, but in the reality of Israeli politics and at a time when the defense minister is busy running a party and calculating his chances for the prime ministership, it is useful to have an experienced deputy like Vilnai. This is also the sting in delegating responsibility for the Home Front to the deputy defense minister: Manning the role is dependent on political considerations and the position is just as liable to end up, in accordance with constraints, in the hands of Kadima MK MarinaSolodkin or a representative of thePensioners' Party. Then the defense minister will once again have to turn his attention from the front to the Home Front.

Japanese and Jordanian spectators

Within Vilnai's area of responsibility is Rahel, the Hebrew acronym for the National Emergency Authority ?(Reshut Haherum Hale'umit?), a bombastic title for a small headquarters, an operations branch, that coordinates among the existing bodies, headed by the Home Front Command and Melach ?(the National Emergency Economic Authority?).

The gospel according to Vilnai, Rahel and for three months now, MajorGeneral Golan, is a comprehensive approach that tightens the Home Front Command's connection to Melach and other bodies, especially the local authorities. Both Japanese and Jordanians ?(two senior officials from the Hashemite Kingdom's Civil Defense Authority?) came to watch the implementation of this idea in the exercise.

During a war, civil defense will stand or fall on the cooperation that exists among four main elements − Home Front Command, Melach, the IsraelPolice and local authorities. The first response to any incident will continue to come from the police, the fire brigade and Magen David Adom rescue squads. The liaison units to the local authorities will help and beef up, but not replace, the elected officials and the administration. One of the ideas currently being considered is to unite police and fire stations, thereby saving operating expenses and coordination efforts. As opposed to the army, the police is familiar with the territory, has experience in imposing order and has the authority to deal withcivilians, but its manpower is limited.

The Israel Defense Forces, where Home Front Command was born in 1992, is deliberating whether to hand it over to some other government ministry. While the IDF does have tremendous resources − in terms of budget, reservists and trucks from the Logistics Branch for sudden evacuation − this is also the same IDF that was both careless and negligent during the Second Lebanon War, with regard to the home front, in Kfar Giladi and in its camps in the Northern Command. Even if there have since been improvements, they still don't provide adequate reassurance, because the threat is far greater than the available response.

Every incident that results in many casualties, such as a missile hit on a densely populated area, will be allocated an entire brigade of Home Front Command. That means three battalions: one for discovery and identification of the warhead ?(conventional, chemical or biological?) and two for evacuation and rescue. That is, on paper.

Vilnai spurred the Home Front Command officers to simulate real-life conditions, including operating with only a fragment of their full complement, as would be the case in armored and paratroop battalions that suffer attrition during fighting. But he, too, knows that it is only possible to deal effectively with one or two incidents, perhaps three. There is no good answer to barrages of missiles and rockets across ?(almost?) the entire country, which will cause panicked civilians to flee from the North to the South, and back again.

Nor is it clear whether Home Front Command will have sufficient stocks of equipment for incidents that occur after the first few days of fighting, or how, if it's been contaminated by chemical or biological weapons, this equipment will be made fit for use again.

Officials at Home Front Command are hoping that the public will obey life-saving instructions, that volunteers will organize to help ?(and thereby keep themselves busy and recover?) and that there will be national and local leadership; they think highly of educational films that are engraved in people's minds as an important tool in a time of emergency. This is a concept adopted from the realm of civilian aviation, where a short safety film is screened before every takeoff. How a population behaves, and to what extent it is possible to control its behavior, can also be studied from time to time at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.

The population as weak point

Seeing the population as a weak point transforms Israel's strategic depth into an illusion. While the borders may offer protection against an invasion, they cannot prevent bombardment. A Jordanian Long Tom cannon bombarded Tel Aviv's Masaryk Square in 1967 and later Iraqi shells fired from Irbid, in Jordan, hit Tiberias. In the missile age, explosives can hit their mark from afar and in large quantities, even with no need for a common border. Reducing the number fired from 7000 to 400 rockets will be impressive quantitatively, said a senior military systems analyst this week, but meaningless in any practical sense.

The political leadership, and perhaps also the senior military leadership, will factor into its moves its concerns about the wrath of the public it may be subjected to once the war is over. Israel's overriding policy, the clearest spokesman of which is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is aimed at preventing a war or at least increasing the timespan between wars, on the assumption that Israel cannot anticipate to ring up any long-term achievements from a conflict.

However, Israel is liable to find itself caught between two conflictingrationales. According to the first, it is best to exercise restraint and not open fire, because a war could still be prevented at the last minute. According to the other rationale, waiting to absorb the first blow will be too costly − not for the conduct of the war, but for the population − and therefore it is best to get in early with a preemptive strike. This approach was last adopted on June 5, 1967. Since then, Israel has taken this path only in specific operations, but not in wars. Prime ministers have preferred to absorb a first blow from Egypt and Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah, rather than absorb an American condemnation, with its diplomatic and military price.

Next time, the prime minister and the General Staff will not be able to allow themselves to wait. Any missile that is not destroyed at its base will constitute a cumulative risk for intolerable damage on the home front. We must not relinquish the alternative of a preemptive strike, a very senior officer in the Israel Air Force advised recently. Despite the talk of ground maneuvers, the IDF will strive to strike mainly from the air and to conduct a short and decisive war that will threaten the enemy's capitals and stimulate external intervention for a swift cease-fire. Out of its weakness, this will be the victory of the Israeli Home Front: It will not allow for the possibility of any other kind of war.