IDF tentatively facing up to Israel’s next major threat — climate change

Military sets up low-level team to consider climate-related work plan, but is urged to go much further and view global warming as a national strategic threat

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Israeli soldiers of the IDF Givati brigade attend an army exercise in the southern Judean desert, June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/ FLASH90 /Flie)
Israeli soldiers of the IDF Givati brigade attend an army exercise in the southern Judean desert, June 6, 2012. (Moshe Shai/ FLASH90 /Flie)

The Israel Defense Forces has begun examining how to incorporate the dangers of climate change into its threat assessments, even as some urge the military to do much more and recognize that global warming is a major strategic threat to the country.

Netta Blass, an officer in the army’s strategy division, told an Environmental Protection Ministry meeting on Monday that her unit was working with counterparts in the IDF’s planning unit to examine the possibility of a climate-related work plan and the creation of a special unit.

These two divisions, she said, are also liaising with the Environment Ministry’s Climate Change Preparedness Directorate, which on Monday held the sixth meeting since its creation in 2018, opening part of it to more than 100 outsiders.

“The subject is on our agenda,” she said.

Michael Herzog, an international fellow at the Washington Institute and a retired IDF brigadier general who headed the army’s Strategic Planning Division, has been involved with a small team of academics and others in trying to get the defense establishment to recognize and adapt in the face of the enormous implications of global warming.

Brigadier General (ret.) Michael Herzog. (Courtesy)

He told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that he thought the army was “waking up,” but, he said, “there isn’t enough awareness at the top.

“It’s OK that they appointed somebody lower down, but I think what we really need to see is senior people dealing with it and budgets being allocated and then you know it’s serious,” he added.

The IDF’s work is at a very early stage, officials said.

In June, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot told the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), where he is now a senior researcher, that unlike the US Army, where climate change was an integral consideration, it was “not discussed” within the IDF and consigned instead to the “most marginal” place among all the issues the army deals with.

This was despite the potential of global warming to impact aircraft runways and training, he told a confab held (in Hebrew) to launch the publication of the INSS’s “Environment, Climate and National Security: A New Front for Israel.” The army was already changing training schedules to ensure that soldiers were not outside during the hottest hours, he added.

An abandoned watch tower by a military road, Judean desert, on January 04, 2018. (Dario Sanchez/Flash90)

Gideon Behar, the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for climate change and sustainability, has also been actively involved in trying to get climate change recognized as a national security threat.

Gideon Behar. (Courtesy)

“We have to move much more quickly,” he urged participants at Monday’s meeting. “The pace of [climate] change is faster than we predicted and the impacts are becoming harder to foresee. Nobody else will correct the things that we don’t do, ourselves, today. This is our shift and we have to work day and night to build preparedness, as well as mitigation.”

Emphasizing the importance of regional cooperation to ensure that neighboring states can build resilience against the effects of global warming, Behar revealed that two years ago, Cyprus launched an initiative for regional climate cooperation between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations (not including North Africa).

Despite a break in activity during the coronavirus pandemic, 12 working groups have been established and a regional meeting is being planned for mid-October, in which Israel will participate, he said.

The IDF could look to the US military for guidance, with the Pentagon leading the way on climate change integration, Dr. Yehuda Troen of the Knesset’s research and information unit said at the same meeting.

Work on plans began in 2014 in the light of the US Army’s need to be more active in the North Pole — where melting glaciers have enabled a higher Russian presence,  and to provide humanitarian assistance, conduct operational activity, collect intelligence and conduct training, in a warming world.

In this July 22, 2017 file photo, a polar bear climbs out of the water to walk on the ice in the Franklin Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Two years ago, the US Army presented Congress with a full report on climate preparedness at 148 military bases, detailing risks from events such as recurrent flooding, droughts and wildfires now and 20 years ahead, Troen said.

Last year, it issued a Climate Resilience Handbook, setting out measures whose implementation is obligatory.

The IDF already has experience with these problems.

At the beginning of last year, flooding of a number of underground hangars caused an estimated NIS 30 million (9.3 million) in damage to eight F-16 fighter jets and infrastructure.

However, it appears that this has not spurred the army to major action.

“It’s not really clear what the IDF is doing,” Troen said, adding that “the National Security Council said it wasn’t really dealing with the subject, although it would be willing to cooperate.”

An F-16 fighter jet sits in a flooded hangar on the Hatzor air force base in southern Israel in January 2020. (Social media)

The NSC’s current director, Meir Ben-Shabbat, is due to retire at the end of August. He will be replaced by former Mossad officer Eyal Hulata, 45.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg is also trying to get the government to recognize climate change as a national strategic threat.

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