The crisis sparked by the coronavirus outbreak is sounding the alarm not only in the Israeli health sector but in the national security realm as well. Consider the corona epidemic as a war that was forced on Israel. The situation has many similarities to a war employing chemical and biological agents.
It has become clear that there is not enough medical equipment to fight the coronavirus in Israel: ambulances, protective gear, and test kits. This recalls the repeated instances during previous decades where post-war commissions of inquiry found a lack of preparedness for emergencies. This recalls the report of Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, written about two years ago, about woeful IDF preparedness for war even today.
The government has tried to calm Israeli nerves by intimating that the IDF will intervene if the epidemic escalates. This is very problematic. The IDF certainly has additional facilities and equipment to deal with mass numbers of sick people and the organizational skills necessary to handle a mass emergency, but the Home Front Command was established to deal with earthquakes and missile attack on cities, not pandemics; and it is comprised largely of mobilized civilians. Its mobilization will weaken the civilian agencies currently on the front line of fighting the virus.
Many IDF units are already suffering from a shortage of manpower.
Unquestionably, the pandemic compromises Israel's national security. Many IDF units are suffering from a shortage of manpower because of infected soldiers and commanders, and others who have been placed under quarantine. While the virus seems mainly to affect older people, if the disease spreads, the IDF's ability to act swiftly may be affected as well. There are many historical examples of armies disintegrating because of an epidemic.
The training routine of many units has been altered to adapt to the new circumstances. Operations in densely populated areas of the West Bank have probably been reduced, too. Maintaining "social distancing" is very problematic for the IDF: How are checkpoints supposed to function effectively in a situation of "social distancing"? How is training conducted without soldiers coming into physical contact with one another? Physical proximity is essential in forging effective combat units. "Social distancing," on the other hand, may erode the esprit de corps and the motivation to fight.
Fighting the corona pandemic is going to cost enormous amounts of money, in direct and indirect costs.
Maintaining "social distancing" is very problematic for the IDF.
At this stage, it is impossible to put a price on the eradication of the pandemic, but it is quite clear that in the post-corona period, Israel's government will have to invest significantly to revive the economy and spur renewed growth.
This means that in all probability there will be insufficient funds available to implement the IDF's multi-year work plan for military build-up; a plan which requires a NIS 20 billion ($5.4 billion) budget increase for the armed forces. And yet, Israel's strategic environment presents challenges that justify significant additions to the defense budget.
The coronavirus is striking at Israel's enemies too, but the effects are not necessarily the same everywhere. Different societies have dissimilar vulnerabilities but the virus certainly does not affect enemy motivations to destroy the Jewish state. The proliferation of conspiracy theories holding Jews responsible for the coronavirus only intensifies such motivation. Poverty and sickness among Israel's neighbors usually lead to the recruitment of desperate people for suicide bombings.
The coronavirus is striking at Israel's enemies too, but not with equivalent effects.
The assertion that the global pandemic diverts enemy attention from the conflict with Israel and tempers the behavior of Israel's enemies – is, alas, wishful thinking; mainly of incorrigible optimists who have difficulty understanding the Middle East mindset.
Iran continues its campaign to expel America from Iraq, and its support of the Houthis in Yemen – despite the deadly effect the corona epidemic has on the country. Turkey continues its struggle to control Idlib. Its real constraint is Russian ambitions, not Corona. Nor is there any evidence of moderation in Assad's behavior.
National cohesion is a prerequisite for winning war, and Israeli society is evincing outstanding national cohesion at present. Therefore, Israel has a decent chance of winning the war against corona. Unfortunately, it seems that Israel's politicians are finding it hard to rise to the occasion and form a national unity government – which most Israelis desire and which Israel surely needs at this time.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.