The Civilian Front: In Search of the Right Positioning

Written by Meir Elran


logo1.jpgSeptember 2, 2008
INSS Insight No. 70
Elran, Meir
The Second Lebanon War led to an important if belated update of Israel's national security concept. The continual Hizbollah bombardment of Israeli population centers in the summer of 2006 was a wake-up call for the Israeli public and its decision makers, reminding them that the home front is an active front and to a large degree of equal significance to the military front.

It is now more evident than ever before that the results of future wars between Israel and its enemies will depend not only on what evolves on the military front, but also on what happens on the home front. The growing strength of Israel's enemies (Hamas in the Palestinian arena, Hizbollah on the Lebanese front, Syria, and Iran further afield) has changed its nature and to a considerable extent now rests on different types of high trajectory weapon systems. The threat thus centers on the civilian front no less than on the direct engagement between armed forces. The question is whether Israel is preparing itself adequately for this different threat.

During an official visit to the IDF Home Front Command on August 19, 2008, Prime Minister Olmert underscored the government's recognition of the significance of the future threat and the necessary response: "Future wars . . . will be different than those of the past, even than the Second Lebanon War. There will no longer [be] a situation in which the war is handled on some distant anonymous front, while life goes on as usual in the big cities. The war will also come to the cities and homes of Israel's citizens, and our enemy's goal will be to attack the home front."

Preparing the home front requires a substantial investment of financial and organizational resources that, as they derive from a single pool of government resources, necessarily compete with those granted to the IDF for preparations on the military front. In the absence of public information about the makeup of the defense budget, it is not possible to suggest an alternate balance of allocations between the military and the home fronts. Furthermore, readiness of the home front requires large chunks of the defense budget, particularly in the area of active defense, as well as budgets from many other government ministries, local authorities, and NGOs.

The strength of the traditional security concept, which continues to give priority to IDF capabilities on the military front, is reflected in numerous areas, including the ongoing disagreement over budget allocations for sheltering the Gaza periphery; the failure to implement the resolution on the redistribution in 2009 of protection kits against non-conventional attacks; and the controversy over the issue of national passive defense in general (bearing in mind PM Olmert's remark "we won't shelter ourselves to death," and the proposed cutback in the 2009 budget for civilian defense against non-conventional weapons).

Investments in traditional military fields have important implications for the strength of the civilian front. They contribute to the strengthening of deterrence and early warning elements and improve the capabilities to repel, attack, and force a rapid decision. As the prime minister noted in his visit to the Home Front Command, "Israel will focus on . . . as quick and as decisive a conclusion as possible of the battle. . . . So it is with any country that wants to attack us. What we will be responsible for is to bring about a quick conclusion, at minimal costs, while utilizing our relative advantages." Yet Olmert did not address the question of what will happen to the civilian population if the IDF is unable to achieve a quick and decisive victory. The answer to this question depends in part on allocations for strengthening civil defense.

Israel lacks a body with a professional capacity to recommend to the cabinet the proper balance of allocations needed for the wide spectrum of national security components, which include vital elements of civil defense that are dispersed among different ministries and agencies. This critical shortcoming demands a proper structural response. Until this happens, the numerous civil organs that are responsible for the home front will lag in the competition with the IDF on budget allocations and in closing the gap between legitimate needs and necessary investments.

The absence of clear leadership of the civilian front is not just a matter of budget. Israel lacks an established and recognized system to provide a suitable response to two key issues: the first, on the strategic level, is the lack of a mechanism to set priorities for preparing the home front for emergencies, including allocating appropriate resources, setting standards, and supervising their actual implementation, while creating a common language for all the agencies engaged in this field. In this context, the establishment of the National Emergency Authority (NEA) in the Ministry of Defense is an important step in the right direction, but it is still too early to say whether it will be able to command authority and impose its decisions on the other organs.

The second issue, on the operative level, is the lack of an effective control system on the ground, capable of deploying rapidly and managing disasters. This is especially critical, given the extensive damage likely in the absence of an orderly and accepted mechanism. The number of agencies involved in disaster management creates a serious problem in effective preparation, control, and response. There appears to be a great deal of confusion, particularly over who controls the local scene. There is still no consensus that the only body capable of leading this challenging task is the local authority. True, some local authorities are too weak and would in their current state find it difficult to rise to the challenge. Others have already assumed the responsibility and demonstrated impressive capabilities. Yet whatever the case, only those that deal with the citizens in routine times and are thoroughly familiar with the arena can manage the system during emergencies.

The state must recognize this and translate this recognition into policy. This means placing the responsibility for handling a mass disaster on the local authorities, which must take charge of all other elements, including the Home Front Command, Israel Police, branches of government ministries, health systems, and volunteer organizations. Each of these entities has a vital role in handling the threat, dealing with the population, and making advance preparations, but there must be a clear coordinator. The local authority, notwithstanding its limitations, is the most suitable candidate for this position. Yet the PM's remarks that "during battle [the Home Front Command] will have to create the correct balance between providing services to the civilian population, creating the correct atmosphere of calm and activating the local administration" indicate  that the government has not yet embraced this approach.

Although the growing awareness of the centrality of the civilian front reflects progress towards a more balanced national defense concept, and although the establishment of the NEA and other practical measures serve as steps in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before the civilian front is properly positioned to deal with the growing threats. The prime minister was right in suggesting that "we do not have to frighten ourselves too much about threats." But at the same time, the present period of relative tranquility must be exploited to prepare for the effective response needed on the civilian home front as well as on the military front.

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