With permission, read full article at JISS.
Eran Lerman, Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, March 22, 2020
The ability of Israeli society to stay resilient at a time of national emergency – specifically in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic – has direct strategic and security implications, insofar as Israel demonstrates that it is capable of facing adversity. in addition, despite the huge budgetary hit engendered by Corona, it is vital to sustain Israeli investment in advanced military capabilities, and retain an untouchable budget reserve for this purpose. Despite Iran’s present misery, there is a real prospect that nuclear confrontation with the regime in Tehran will reach a boiling point.
Generally speaking Israeli society thus far has shown a remarkble degree of resilience and solidarity in the face of the Coronavirus crisis, facing its epidemiological aspects as well as its massive economic effects. Public discourse may be tinged with a considerable degree of suspicion and cynicism towards decisions taken at the highest political level (given the ongoing political polarization of the country). But alongside such responses, there has been a willingness to lend an attentive ear to the professional recommendations of health authorities and to abide by government guidelines.
Such expressions of reslience, augmented by signs of social solidarity, have a direct bearing not only on the ability to “flatten the curve” in epidemiological terms (i.e., to reduce and delay the spread of the virus to levels that enable the public health system to function) but also on statecraft and strategy. Specifically, projecting the image of a nation able to remain resilient and highly functional even in advesity has security implications, as an integral part of the deterrence equation. (This is the exact opposite of the description of Israeli society as being “weak as spiderwebs” – spoken by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah, 2006.) It has already been said, for example, that the one way to deter suicide bombers is not by telling them they would die – that much they know – but by proving over time that they die for nothing; that they fail to tear the fabric or break the spirit of Israeli society.
Significantly, these social responses need to be enhanced and complemented at the level of the political system. The latter must rid itself of the bitter legacies of the recent and repeated election cycles and rise to the challenge of handling a fateful hour. Credibility and determination at the highest political echelons, and the capacity to make tough choices, all have a direct influence on social conduct at a time of historical crisis.
The comparison between France and Britain in 1940 – who fell apart, who did not – illustrates the need for leadership in sustaining national resilience. Given that there are no real differences of policy between the key Israeli political actors – not regarding the virus, nor regarding Iran or the Trump peace plan – it is vital to forge a common stand and embrace national cohesion in the face of the strategic challenges Israel faces.
Careful and effective economic management of the crisis – despite the yawning budgetary chasm and the forced idling of much of the nation’s productive capacity – can also produce stratgeic effects. Once the crisis wanes (and on the assumption that the global economy will be able to recover and generate investment capital again) the proven capacity to withstand this very real “stress test” may actually enhance Israel’s reputation as a worthy destination for large scale investment. All the more so since the crisis highlights fields in which Israel has real contributions to make, ranging from biotechnology to online work and study.
In order to be able to withstand the crisis, Israel may need to make use of its impressive foreign currency reserves. (Over the past decade, the Bank of Israel stockpiled dollars to sustain the rate of exchange at a level compatible with Israel’s dependence on export markets.) The finance ministry needs to work in close coordination with the Bank of Israel. As in the case of social reslience, economic viability also has a role in sustaining Israel’s deterrence as well building up its diplomatic standing with countries who wish to rely on Israeli technological innovations as well as its defense capacities against their enemies.
At the same time, even as the pandemic seems to absorb the full attention of Israeli decision makers (who may be lulled into compalcency by the present decline in hostile activity by Hamas and other enemies who also are confronted by the virus) it remains important to prevent a loss of balance regarding national priorities. Once there is a new government authorized to set budgetary priorities, it will need to be on guard against the tendency to drastically reduce defense expenditures. Moreover, in the face of growing uncertainty about the scope of the pandemic in the US and its possible impact on the American economy, significant dollar reserves should be held against worst-case scenarios. Israel must be able to invest in IDF force build-up, especially since the threat of confrontation with Iran remains ever-present.
Iran’s nuclear and terrorist-subversive activities have been gaining momentum despite that country’s dire predicament and the profound imprint of the pandemmic on Iranian society and the legitimacy of the regime. As Iran continues on course towards higher levels of uranium enrichment, towards the goal of stockpiling enough fissile material for military purposes, the potential for conflagration is real. Preparing for a confrontation with Iran will require continued Israeli discipline, and the broadest possible level of public and political support.