The Home Front Defense Ministry appears to be disintegrating. The current director-general announced his resignation on Monday. Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan followed suit later in the day, saying he would step down on May 31. And Israel’s civilians – the clear target of each of Israel’s current enemies – continue to suffer from what has developed into a perilous level of neglect.
In July 2007, one year after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released a report about the readiness of the home front. During the course of the 34-day war, he wrote, “multiple failures, some of them most grave,” were apparent in the way the government and the various security forces addressed the ongoing attacks against Israel’s civilians. The remedy, he wrote, was for the government to establish “a central, national organization” that could “concentrate on the home front during ordinary times and times of emergency – including the formation of protocol, the building of troop structure and their training.”
That war, the first in which Israel’s enemy focused primarily on inflicting civilian casualties, claimed 44 civilian lives, saw 350,000 people flee their homes in northern Israel, and, for a variety of reasons, has left in its wake seven years of quiet for Israel’s north.
Aside from Israel’s reestablished deterrence, which was bolstered by the price Hezbollah was forced to pay during battle, another reason for the lasting calm is that the Shiite organization, never more closely aligned with Iran than now, has been given direct orders to amass arms and hold fire up until the hour of need – if and when Israel decides to strike Iran’s nuclear program.
In such a scenario, which would surely trigger war with Hezbollah, Israel would face a combined 3,000 rockets a day, a senior officer recently told The Times of Israel.
And yet, with the threats brutally clear and the repercussions nakedly obvious, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the face of quarreling home front rivals, refused to take a stand.
To be fair, former defense minister Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon, the current defense minister, and Prime Minister Netanyahu have come a long way in internalizing the potency of the missile threat facing Israel. Speaking earlier this month at a security conference in Tel Aviv, Barak underscored the importance of Israel’s multi-layered air defense system, dismissing the hefty price tag as insignificant in the larger scale, and scolding defense officials for their long-standing resistance to missile defense, which, he said, revealed “a lack of long-term vision.”
Perhaps this seems obvious. But the army is hard-wired toward offense and, despite the achievements of its defensive systems, it rightly believes that success is measured by how long and at what cost the military is able to crush its enemy’s offensive capacity. Today, though, it recognizes that with Israel’s adversaries entrenched within their own civilian populations and investing almost exclusively in rockets and missiles and drones meant to strike at Israel’s civilians, the army, in order to achieve its goals, needs to buy time by keeping the home front quiet. This enables the government to employ its more precise tools against, say, a Hezbollah rocket launcher on the second floor of a three-story apartment building.
Hence, Iron Beam, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 – addressing every curved projectile threat from mortars to ballistic missiles. But those systems, terrific feats of engineering and organizational efficiency though they are, will not address the problems the residents of Safed, for instance, faced during the summer of 2006. They will not determine how many bomb shelters there are in each town and village, or how well stocked they are, or how much generator fuel the local hospital has, or who the mayor might call to help an old lady trapped in a house, or who gives orders to, and prioritizes the missions of, firefighters and Magen David Adom paramedics once a salvo of missiles strikes, say, multiple population centers in Tel Aviv.
This, ostensibly, was why the Home Front Defense Ministry was created. But its birth was hasty, the progeny of a political deal that saw Barak splinter off of the Labor Party along with several other MKs, including Maj. Gen. (ret) Matan Vilnai, who was given the new ministry. Equipped with a budget, a staff and offices, the ministry, created in 2011, was never given legislative authority.
Even the outgoing director general, Dan Ronen, a former police major general, said in August 2012, one year before he was picked to head the ministry, that “There’s no use denying it: the Home Front Defense Ministry was established solely for political reasons. The ministry has not only failed to contribute to the readiness of the home front during a time of emergency,” he wrote in an op-ed on YNET, “but has bothered and hindered the bodies already engaged in this work.”
The IDF and the Defense Ministry could not agree more. “Who functioned during the [snow] storm?” Ya’alon said several months ago. “The entire IDF was behind that thing. The tools belonged to the IDF’s Home Front Command. The bulldozers were the engineering corps’, the helicopters were the air force’s, the APCs [armed personnel carriers] were Golani’s. Is there something else being built? Where are the draftees? All this is just idle talk, talk without understanding.”
Pointing to the rigid chain of command from the prime minister to the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and the head of the IDF’s Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, Ya’alon said that the Home Front Defense Ministry was “a waste of the public’s money.”
The Public Security Ministry, in charge of the police force and the fire department during ordinary times, wants its budget and authority increased so that it, a civilian organization, will be in charge of civilian matters during wartime. The head of the Emergency Services Directorate at the Public Security Ministry, Haim Cohen, told a Knesset committee in February that he sees no reason to differentiate between ordinary times and times of emergency. He did not note Israel Police’s 2010 debacle in dealing with the Carmel forest fire, which left 44 Israelis dead and was poorly handled from a command and control perspective.
The National Security Council, according to its deputy director, Brig. Gen. (res) Ze’ev Zuk-Ram, has suggested that the IDF continue to train the Home Front Command soldiers but that it turn them over to the Public Security Ministry during a war. “I don’t want the minister of defense dealing with every missile that falls on Tel Aviv,” he told the same Knesset committee. “The defense minister should be focused on the front. What happens in Tel Aviv is the responsibility of the Public Security Ministry. It is not within the IDF’s focus.”
The Home Front Defense Ministry, prior to Erdan’s bombshell letter to Netanyahu — “In order to avoid the continued overlap and the waste of public funds, it is advisable to place the full responsibility of the preparation of the home front, in both routine and emergency [situations], with the Defense Ministry”– sought a middle ground, where it would have regulatory authority during times of peace but not command control during times of war.
Now, more than seven years after the Second Lebanon War, it is threatening to fold. And Israeli civilians are, minus the advances in air defense, back where they started.