The Officers Left Their Masks at Home

There is much significance to the fact that while the finance minister and his senior aides have sewn up the details of the new economic program, the IDF was adopting a hasty decision - the product of a reluctance to assume responsibility and show true leadership - to open the gas-mask kits. While Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to present the government and the public with his program, which will genuinely affect the standard of living of the citizens of Israel, the decision taken by the senior military command, which is at complete odds with all of the professional and intelligence assessments that it itself has been offering, is generating a billion shekels in government expense.

In the past few weeks, every defense establishment spokesman has stressed the very, very, very low probability of a missile attack by Iraq (to which the chief of staff added one more "very"). But instead of displaying leadership and deciding on readying the home front on the basis of this professional assessment, IDF commanders have instructed the public to act as if at any moment dozens of chemical, or even biological, warheads could rain down on their heads. The directive was given solely for the purpose of covering ass. The person who gave the order didn't even intend to make good on it. The chief of staff, IDF spokesman and all of the other officers on the General Staff, with a wink and an understanding smile, have already determined that the chances of missiles being fired at Israel are very, very low, so why do they have to carry around their masks?

Besides the hypocrisy embodied in the actions of the senior army officers and cabinet ministers who left their masks at home, the decision also demonstrated the unbearable lightness of unnecessarily spending a billion shekels. Maybe the economic situation is bad, but if all it takes is another billion shekels to go down the drain so that we high-ranking officers don't have to assume responsibility for our professional assessments, that isn't too bad, is it? Security, as we all know, is priceless.

The problem is that the decision to open the gas-mask kits and have citizens carry them at all times is the unavoidable and foreseeable result of a process initiated by the defense establishment several months ago. The prime minister, defense minister and high-ranking army officers embarked on a fright campaign that included, it may be recalled, threats of ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons, Iraqi planes and pilotless drones that would sow our skies with dangerous spores. For weeks we witnessed a lunatic debate, inspired by the highest echelons of the defense establishment, about the need to inoculate the population against smallpox. Someone even saw fit to leak that the gas-mask kit had a pill in it for use against radioactive materials.

The pretext for the scare campaign had to do with the senior IDF command's need to provide a backdrop for its request for a supplement to the defense budget, and with the political echelon's desire to divert the public's attention from problems of the economy and the unemployment. But the plan surpassed all expectations, and the public went into a panic. The rest was predictable. It didn't take long for the citizenry to stampede the gas-mask distribution centers and seal their safe rooms. What began as a scare campaign that had the frailest correlation to a genuine threat, picked up steam, and the military quickly lost any ability to control events. At a certain point, the command level realized it had gone too far, and tried to change direction and say there was really nothing to worry about, but by then it was too late.

Then, prior to the outbreak of the war in Iraq, when they had an opportunity to demonstrate some leadership, they failed abjectly. They were not willing to take upon themselves the responsibility called for by their own information and assessments, and ordered the population to open the kits and keep them close at hand. This was a direct follow-through of the approach taken by the senior military command ever since the Gulf War in 1991, by which it had to provide absolute security to the public, no matter what the cost. Based on this approach, little account is taken of the actual probability of a threat; the solution is offered for any threat, no matter how slim its probability. The problem, of course, is that absolute security is unattainable, and any country that tries to provide it to its citizens will eventually go bankrupt.

The decision to open the gas-mask kits raises another point, no less disturbing. After all we were told about the massive array of antimissile defensive systems, about the marvels of the Arrow system and the performance of the improved Patriot - don't they themselves believe that that they will succeed in shooting down the one or two missiles that Saddam might manage to launch in our direction?