Undermining Deterrence

The defense establishment has missed a chance to abandon a mistaken home front defense policy dating from the eve of the first Gulf War and adopt a different, saner one. In October 1990, on the eve of America's assault on Iraq, a special ministerial committee decided to distribute gas masks to every resident of the country. The decision was the result of a vicious circle that began with a series of frightening scenarios painted by the leaders of the defense establishment, with the energetic encouragement of then foreign minister David Levy. The frightened public responded with pressure of its own, and this led to the decision to distribute gas masks in an effort to calm it.

This was a mistake, because the signal it sent to Saddam Hussein was that Israel had relinquished one of the central elements of its defense doctrine: deterrence.

Even though Syria and Egypt have had chemical weapons since the 1970s, successive governments decided, and rightly, not to distribute gas masks to civilians. Instead, they based their policy against this threat on the credibility of Israeli deterrence. And it worked. Even when the Egyptian and Syrian armies found themselves in very difficult situations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, their leaders refrained from using chemical weapons, fearing a harsh Israeli response. And it was a mistake to assume two decades ago that Saddam would behave differently.

The gas masks were distributed, and Saddam Hussein, as expected, was afraid to use missiles with chemical warheads. But Israel's deterrence was undermined. Later, when Saddam's son-in-law, General Ali, defected to Jordan, he was asked why the Iraqis did not use chemical weapons against Israel. The officer responsible for Iraq's chemical arsenal said that they were worried about a nuclear response from Israel.

Nevertheless, the lesson was not learned: In 2003, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, the Israel Defense Forces ordered civilians to prepare their gas masks for use in case of a chemical weapons attack - an order that cost the taxpayers NIS 1 billion.

Three years ago, a decision was made to collect the gas masks from Israeli homes in order to refurbish them. That was an opportunity to adopt a different policy and revert to basing our defensive doctrine against the threat of chemical attack on deterrence.

Instead, the government again decided to distribute gas masks to every Israeli. Not only was the distribution slated to take over three years and cost more than NIS 1 billion, but it was nonsensical to begin with - because the relevant chemical threat comes from the missiles in Syria's arsenal, and in the future, perhaps also from rockets held by Hezbollah.

Against Syria, experience shows that Israel's deterrence is sufficient: It is doubtful that the Syrians would dare make use of chemical weapons, as they know Israel's response would exact a heavy price.

Deterrence would also presumably work against Hezbollah should that organization acquire chemical weapons. Hezbollah realizes that Israel's response to a chemical attack would be to raze of all of Lebanon's infrastructure and strike strategic targets throughout the country, and not only those linked to Hezbollah. In view of Hezbollah's aims, and its role in Lebanon's political system, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, cannot allow himself to bring about Lebanon's destruction. While the group may fire rockets with conventional warheads, against these, gas masks are useless anyway.

In any event, the presence of gas masks at home will not help if the home front suffers a surprise attack, since anyone who is caught outside his home will not be able to return to put on the mask. The flight time of rockets from Lebanon to northern Israel is too short. And it cannot be assumed that henceforth, every Israeli will go everywhere, all the time, with a gas mask in hand.

Therefore, it would be more appropriate to store the gas masks in central storage facilities and distribute them to the population only if the regional situation changes drastically and it becomes clear that deterrence does not provide a sufficient response. That is not the case at this time, nor does this seem likely to change in the foreseeable future. This also goes for Iran, where it is doubtful that the leadership would risk a decisive Israeli response.

But when politicians are incapable of demonstrating responsibility and civic courage, preferring instead to make populist decisions, what are a few billion shekels and damage to the credibility of our deterrence? And anyway, what would the Home Front Command do if it did not supervise and manage the distribution of gas masks?