Both hero and zero: Israel’s strategic incoherence
While Israelis are increasingly alarmed by the government’s loss of control over the coronavirus crisis, different events suggest that the country may have pulled off a spectacular advance in the battle against another intractable foe.
Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a succession of mysterious explosions in Iran.
At the end of last month, there was a major explosion in the Khojir missile factory near Tehran and at a power plant in Shiraz, which plunged the city into darkness. There has also been an explosion at a Tehran clinic, and other major fires in power plants and a petrochemical factory.
The most significant event, however, was an explosion and fire last week at Iran’s centrifuge assembly plant in Natanz.
According to the former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C., this destroyed nearly three-quarters of Iran’s main centrifuge assembly hall.
No one has claimed responsibility for these events. But the explosions at Khojir and Natanz required the kind of sophisticated intelligence, coordination and operational skill that suggest the involvement of a foreign power. Many experts assume that, in these at least, Israel was a principal actor.
The two sites were important elements in Iran’s infrastructure of warfare against Israel and the west.
Khojir, which is said to have a network of underground tunnels, is suspected of involvement in the production of ballistic missiles. Intelligence experts agree that the explosion there seemed to be the result of an Israeli cyber-attack. The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida, however, claimed that an airstrike by an Israeli F-35 stealth jet was involved.
The Natanz centrifuge hall, buried deep under concrete and enmeshed steel roof, was inaugurated in 2018 in order to make the advanced centrifuges needed to make an atomic bomb. Albright writes that it was thought to be Iran’s only clean-room operation set up for the mass assembly of these centrifuges.
In January, Iran announced that it would no longer adhere to its commitment under the 2015 nuclear deal, brokered by former President Barack Obama, that limited the number and type of centrifuges deployed at Natanz and perhaps also at the Fordow plant.
As noted in The Hill by Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel was probably alarmed that Iran had now restarted this production.
The destruction at Natanz won’t have stopped Iran’s nuclear program or even eliminated all its centrifuges. However, Albright writes that it “must be viewed as a major setback to Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come.”
And that would buy precious more time to allow other increasingly severe pressures on the regime to destabilize and hopefully bring it down altogether.
The sanctions against Iran imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump are causing intense economic hardship. The coronavirus pandemic is thought to have raged out of control, with a large death toll (currently at more than 12,000 with 250,000 cases of infection, according to Worldometer statistics, though these statistics are said to be under-reported) and overwhelmed health services.
Popular revolts are continuing. In the last few days, mass demonstrations have taken place over the failure to pay people their wages. Last year, protests by people angered at the regime pouring money into foreign wars and terrorism rather than social programs resulted in the regime killing at least 1,500 people and shutting down the internet in panic.
Of course, no one in Israel is under any illusions about the dangers of possible Iranian retaliation. But it’s just possible that, through these recent attacks on military targets, Israel has navigated a route towards preventing Iran from going nuclear and helping bring down the regime, short of waging open war.
If so, such a stellar achievement is in startling and perplexing contrast to Israel’s current chaos over Covid-19. New virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits, have now soared to more than 1,000 a day with a rising proportion of people testing positive.
After Israel’s stunning achievement at the start of the virus crisis, when the government acted fast to impose travel restrictions, quarantine and a full lockdown that reduced cases to negligible levels, the current increase in weekly infections is one of the sharpest in the world.
So why has Israel gone from hero to zero? Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have taken his eye off the ball. In his haste to reopen the shuttered and shattered economy, he did so without putting in place what was needed to contain a virus that had been suppressed but was still all-too active.
So he made the mistake of opening schools and relaxing other restrictions, including allowing large gatherings, far too soon.
The Israeli public, in turn, threw caution to the wind, along with their masks and social-distancing rules. Their behavior has been irresponsible but, given the mixed and utterly confusing signals from the government, hardly surprising.
The situation has been grossly mishandled by an apparently catastrophic lack of coordination. Some decisions are made by the health ministry, others by the prime minister’s office, still others by the Knesset.
The finance ministry is fighting with the health ministry for information about rates of infection or transmission that the health ministry may not even have collected. Crucial questions — about the number of new cases which are asymptomatic, for example, or how the infection is transmitted in schools — remain unanswered.
Even when restrictions are announced, they don’t all come into effect at the same time. As one Israeli told The Jerusalem Post in exasperation: “Pools are closed. No, pools are opened. Hold on, some are opened, and some are closed.”
The jarring disjunction between Israel’s achievements over Iran and its disarray over Covid-19 reflects a broader and institutionalized cultural incoherence.
Israel wins its wars against impossible odds because its military and security establishment is focused upon one objective: to defend the state against a real existential threat. This imperative carries all before it. Israeli society is organized around a military ethos. Social status is determined by the military unit in which you served.
The only strategic thinking is over defense. There is no strategic vision of what kind of society Israel should be, no politically defining divisions over the state versus the free market or over social and cultural matters. There’s only one overwhelming issue: how to keep Israel safe from its enemies.
This is entirely understandable, but very unfortunate. For it permits a deeply dysfunctional and corrupt political system where priorities are distorted by parties representing very few people but upon whom the prime minister depends for power. Add to that Netanyahu’s tendency to centralize all decision-making and the result is an overwhelmingly incompetent, feuding and destructive administrative class.
At the start of the pandemic, Netanyahu focused on eliminating the virus with military-style single-mindedness. The country’s security apparatus was deployed to fight this unseen enemy, which was viewed as another existential threat to the nation. The Shin Bet was tapped to track and isolate those who bust quarantine or had been in proximity to virus carriers.
But as soon as the threat was perceived to have retreated, the security element bowed out and the civil infrastructure took over. The result was instant chaos.
This is why the virus has become the enemy that has got under Israel’s defenses. A country cannot live and thrive by military strategy alone. It must have a governing vision of itself not wearing armor, too.