Pipe Dreams

Politicians are induced into adopting baseless technological visions and then rush to promise the worried public that an end to the latest threat is at hand. The Nautilus interception system is still not operational, 13 years after it was promised to protect Kiryat Shmona from Katyushas. Sderot residents should take heed.

In February 1996, when Katyusha rockets were slamming into Kiryat Shmona, Shimon Peres, then the prime minister, announced that "we will soon have a weapon to intercept Katyushas." He was referring to the Nautilus system. Last week it turned out that the U.S. Army, which is in charge of developing the Nautilus, hopes the first operational system of the missile will be operational by 2009. That is, in the best case, 13 years after Peres made his promise.

This story should be borne in mind by the residents of Sderot when senior personnel in the defense establishment promise them they will develop a missile against Qassam rockets "as quickly as possible" and when the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, asserts that "a solution can be found for the Qassam problem within a year, or a year and a half at most."

Over and over politicians, in the wake of the defense establishment, are induced into adopting baseless technological visions and then rush to promise the worried public that an end to the latest threat is at hand. The tendency by senior defense officials to promise Israelis "total security," which includes a solution for every threat, leads them to make groundless pronouncements. One such pronouncement is the assurance that the Arrow missile protects us from Iranian missiles and another was the one about the Nautilus.

It is only against the background of this policy of throwing sand in the public's eyes that one can understand the story that appeared in the daily Maariv on October 4, under the headline, "Israel to develop anti-Qassam missile." In an extensive report, which included quotations from senior officials of the defense establishment, the paper elaborated on the development plans for the system of defense against the Qassams, the timetable and even some of the system's operational elements. Sources in the defense establishment are quoted as saying, "The development of an anti-Qassam missile is a `mission possible.'" According to the report, the defense minister attaches supreme importance to the project and "the likelihood is that Mofaz will approve an investment of tens of millions of shekels in the development" of the system.

Beyond the fact that, professionally speaking, the development of such a missile is practically impossible, and in any event appallingly expensive, the idea itself says a lot about the Israeli public and media, which places blind faith in the defense establishment and is captive to the illusions it cultivates, sometimes irresponsibly. You don't have to be a ballistics expert to understand that the story about a missile that will intercept a rocket whose flight time is less than 20 seconds is problematic at best and a nonstarter at worst.

Indeed, the following day (October 5), Maariv's archrival, Yedioth Ahronoth, cited "sources in the defense establishment" as saying that the report contained not a grain of truth. However, because this is such a substantive issue, and following such a prominent report, an official denial should have been issued by the defense establishment. The hesitant denial we got is not convincing. And, indeed, a week later it emerged that the Defense Ministry gave a "green light" to the military industries to speed up the development efforts for an anti-Qassam missile.

Telling the truth and making it clear that not every threat has a military-technological solution requires leadership and civil courage. Regrettably, those qualities are not in abundant evidence among senior figures in the defense establishment. It is sad to discover that after four years of fighting in the territories the defense establishment is in a state of conceptual stagnation. Nothing demonstrates better what has happened to the shapers of our defense policy than the very idea of investing tens of millions of dollars in developing a defensive system against metal pipes that are manufactured on home lathes.

The army's activity in the Gaza Strip over the past three weeks shows again that there is no perfect solution to the Qassam problem. Even when large forces are deployed in the launch areas, the Palestinians manage to fire rockets. True, the number of launches can be reduced and made more problematic for the perpetrators, but this is a temporary success, because in the end the army will have to leave the Gaza Strip. It has to be understood that just as the Katyusha rockets were not stopped by the Nautilus system, but by Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, so too the Qassam problem will not be solved by sophisticated weapons systems and groundless promises about their development, but by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.