What's Behind the Masks?

The decision makers try to be seen as acting with extreme caution. The result: They imbue the country with an atmosphere of constant and extreme levels of danger.

Matan Vilnai admitted once that there is a technologically advanced bomb shelter in his home, equipped and ready for any eventuality - which reflects a high level of security awareness. Five days ago it was reported that Vilnai is spreading his security awareness to the general public: At his initiative, the cabinet decided to reissue gas masks to every civilian. The head of the National Emergency Administration, Brigadier General (res.) Ze'ev Tzuk-Ram, explained on Israel Radio that "there is no reason to panic because this is a purely technical move about which a decision was made earlier."

Really? On March 19, 2007, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told the Knesset that "the defense establishment has decided to collect the gas masks from civilians, refurbish them -and place them in central storage holding areas that will be established near large urban centers." Sneh's statements reflected a work in progress: In late 2006 the Defense Ministry hired two companies to collect the gas masks, distributed originally during the Gulf War in 1991. The official Web site of the Home Front Command is still offering instructions on how to deal with company representatives who come to collect the gas masks.

The Knesset Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Defense ordered the cessation of the roundup last July, so as not to strip the citizenry of essential protection. The committee recommended instead that a rapid and graduated collection and refurbishment program be undertaken, according to areas that would be identified as most likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction. During the cabinet meeting last week there was a disagreement whether to redistribute the masks or to keep them stored in regional depots. Vilnai's view was eventually accepted. This zig-zagging does not lend much credibility to the statement of Brigadier Tzuk-Ram that the decision on distributing the masks is the result of a well-planned process; it actually appears to be a nervous improvisation.

There are those who question whether the Israeli population really needs gas masks. That was a response to the government panic that occured 18 years ago. The masks were kept in storage by the civilian population until March 2003, when they were asked to pull them out again prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In retrospect, it turned out, there had been false panic: In 1990 Saddam Hussein did not launch any non-conventional warheads on his missiles targeting Israel, and in 2003, it turned out he had no such weapons.

Now the senior officials in the defense establishment are being inundated with new threat assessments involving WMD, from Syria and/or Hezbollah, and/or other proxies of Iran nearby. In the meantime there are serious doubts about the effectiveness of the masks, and the degree to which they are able to counter the threats such weapons pose for the population and whether their cost is justified. State comptrollers have gone on record asserting the current quality of the masks does not provide the kind of protection the defense establishment attributes to them.

Even if we accept the assumption that these masks are essential defensive equipment under the circumstances in which Israel exists, and that it is wrong to reject their necessity, it is hard to shake off the impression that last Wednesday's decision is evidence of poor judgment. And, even if it does not reflect any excessive fears, it certainly appears to be part of a syndrome known as covering one's backside: The decision makers try to be seen as acting with extreme caution. The result: They imbue the country with an atmosphere of constant and extreme levels of danger.

The citizens of Israel draw from their leadership a sense that they will be destroyed by Iranian nuclear weapons, that they will be hit with WMD from Syria and Hezbollah, and that the Palestinian terrorist organizations may attack them with non-conventional weapons they may be given by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Osama bin Laden. The country's political and military leadership does not believe in grading the repertoire of threats hanging over Israel; the enemy is everywhere, and the ultimate horror is due to fall upon us at any moment. Instead of the panicky distribution of gas masks, the issuing of flyers calling on citizens to immediately buy sealants for their windows (a Home Front Command campaign) and preparations for an Iranian atomic attack, it is best to try and reach an agreement with the Palestinians. This is the real problem that needs to be resolved - and a solution is within reach.