Israelis should go about their usual routine, Benny Gantz, the IDF’s chief of staff, said Tuesday evening, speaking off-the-cuff to an Israeli TV reporter moments after he had delivered an address warning Syria’s President Bashar Assad that the army was “sharp” and “ready” to defend Israel against any aggression he might be so foolish as to launch.
The IDF Spokesman issued the same kind of reassuring remarks Wednesday morning, telling the public there was no cause for alarm, despite clear Syrian and Iranian threats that a US-led strike against Assad regime targets would prompt retaliation against Israel.
There’s “no reason to change daily routines,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as telling Israelis on Wednesday afternoon, at the end of an anything-but-routine five-hour consultation with his security chiefs — the third in three days — over the Syria crisis.
Ever since last Wednesday’s alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces killed hundreds of Syrian civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, and the US moved reluctantly into attack mode, the Hebrew media has overflowed with assessments by officials and pundits that the likelihood of an Assad-instigated retaliation against Israel was very, very low.
After all, the commentators reasoned, an Assad strike at Israel would inevitably prompt a harsher Israeli strike at Assad, an attack that, if Israel so chose, could easily shift the balance of the civil war definitively in favor of the rebels fighting to oust the Alawite president. Far more likely, the assessments have continued, that Assad will bite his lip, absorb the limited strike the Americans are about to deliver, possibly authorize a terror attack on Israeli or Jewish targets overseas or a minor Hezbollah action on the Lebanon border, and get on with his key business of winning the civil war.
But to judge from the dramatic upsurge in Israelis seeking gas mask protection kits in the past few days, not all of the public is entirely persuaded that the daily Israeli routine is going to be completely unaffected by the imminent US-led intervention on the other side of the northern border.
Confidence in the capacity of the Israeli security establishment to assess what is about to unfold around us, after all, has hardly been bolstered by the hierarchy’s consistent incapacity since the outbreak of the amusingly named Arab Spring to predict the radical twists and turns of regional instability and how they might affect little Israel.
This is, it must be said, a pretty difficult period for those whose job is to make sense of intelligence information emanating from the unstable nations in the neighborhood. Difficult or not, though, the fact is that the recent track record is one of failure — including, but not limited to, failure to foresee the revolution that ousted Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, failure to predict that Syrians would put their lives on the line and take to the streets to try to oust Assad, even failure to anticipate Hasan Rouhani winning in the first round of the Iranian elections.
If there’s one thing Israelis are certain of, indeed, it’s that just about anything can happen in the Middle East right now. Oh, and that the doubtless well-intentioned Israeli authorities, and their more dutiful pundits, can by no means be guaranteed to give them credible advance word about it.
Sure, many Israelis have likely been reasoning in the last few days, a pragmatic Assad would hardly provoke his own demise by striking at Israel. But equally, they might counter, a pragmatic Assad would hardly have prompted US-led military intervention by gassing hundreds of his own people. Maybe Assad is a pragmatist. Maybe he isn’t. Perhaps more relevantly, maybe Assad is in full control of those branches of his armed forces that are equipped to gas Syrian civilians and those that are equipped to fire on Israel. And maybe he isn’t.
Yes, indeed, Israelis might further have been musing, Assad ought well be deterred by Netanyahu’s Tuesday vow to hit Syria hard if Israel detects so much as a threat in our direction. But then again, Assad may believe Israel isn’t actually interested in his demise — only in him being weakened — since the beneficiaries of his ouster would include highly unsavory al-Qaeda-affiliated forces. He might therefore think he could get away with a limited but face-saving swipe at Israel.
Most relevant of all, though, for Israelis’ willingness to continue their daily routines, or not, is the knowledge that the home front authorities have not stocked up on enough gas masks for the whole population. As the former IDF spokesman, now Labor MK, Nachman Shai, bemoaned for the umpteenth time on Wednesday, there are sufficient gas mask kits for only some 60% of the population. So hearing assurances from the authorities later Wednesday that the home front command is “ready to provide any assistance” that might be necessitated by ongoing developments would not have been received with universal confidence. And the latest rush on the gas mask distribution centers, with phone systems collapsing, and insufficient kits on hand, underlined public concern.
The best way to ensure that the public stays calm is to provide clear, credible information, to acknowledge when a situation is so uncertain as to render any predictions pointless, and crucially to plan ahead so that citizens are as well protected as possible from the unpredictable. Simply telling people to stay calm when those conditions have not been met is almost guaranteed to ensure the opposite result.
Assad may indeed be unlikely to strike at Israel. And few Israelis doubt the IDF’s capacity to hit back with devastating force if needed. But they’d be more comfortable in their normal routines if the authorities were straighter with them, in acknowledging that, actually, there are no guarantees about what’s about to happen, and if they all already had at home the gas mask kits they’re being assured they almost certainly won’t have to use.