Israel Giving Gas Masks to Babies

There's good news for the children of Israel.
Every one of them will soon be getting candy, for free, from their government.
Are the Israelis returning to the socialist spirit of their founding fathers?
Not quite.

There's good news for the children of Israel.
Every one of them will soon be getting candy, for free, from their government.
Are the Israelis returning to the socialist spirit of their founding fathers?
Not quite.

"Candy" is the name of a new kind of gas mask, designed
especially for children. "We are the only country in the world that produces gas
masks for children," the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) website boasts. The masks even come with "a connecter to a pacifier and a bottle,
especially appropriate for infants."

I'll sleep a lot better at night knowing that the newest
member of my family -- my beautiful 4-month-old Israeli grandniece -- will have
her very own "Candy." The gas masks will be distributed to her and to every
other Israeli (Arabs as well as Jews) by the Israeli postal service. If her
parents don't go to the post office to get it, it will be delivered to their
home -- though they'll have to pay an extra postage charge for the

But it won't be just dumped on their doorstep. "It is not a package that is simply
delivered," says the proud head of Israel's Gas Mask Administration. The
postman "will try the gas masks on the family members, and make sure the gas
mask fits properly. ... We will put the resident at the center."

It must have taken a whole team of geniuses in the PR
department of the IDF to dream up such a sweet name and tender description for
such a macabre experience. I hope they got a big bonus.

Why do the babies of Israel
need "Candy"? Why does any Israeli
need a personally fitted gas mask? The government gave no explanation at all,
leaving others free to speculate.

Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer reports that's "Israel's enemies would almost
certainly bombard cities with medium-range missiles which are capable of
carrying chemical warheads. Although defence experts say that Hamas and
Hizbollah's missiles will probably still only carry conventional warheads, the
cabinet decided that it could not take the risk." The gas masks distributed to
the populace in the 1991 Gulf War are all worn out (and many never worked right
to begin with), so it's time for another round. It seems reasonable enough. What nation would put its
people at risk, especially its children, when protection is at hand?

But Pfeffer hints at another possibility, too: "Any armed
conflict between Israel and
its enemies, including an airstrike on Iran's nuclear installations, will
include an intense bombardment of Israeli cities." Rumors have been flying for
years that the Israelis will indeed strike Iran's nuclear
installations, inviting some kind of swift retaliation.

Would the Iranians strike back with gas? "Iran's chemical and
biological weapons capabilities are currently not known," according to BioPrepWatch,
a newswire that covers biological terror threats and policies around the world.
But the
group notes that "no country in the Middle East is believed to be likely to
engage in chemical or biological warfare with Israel, either.
The gas mask distribution has, however, raised questions as to
Israel's potential plans to
launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities."

"Rumors in
the Middle East abound that Israel is preparing to rein in Hezbollah through
another war on Lebanon," the BioPrepWatch reports
adds. "Hezbollah, however, is also
not believed to hold any chemical or biological weapons. The only country in
Israel's region currently
believed to have access to a major chemical or biological weapons program is
Israel itself."

Before we speculate on Israel's
intentions, though, let's remember that this whole gas-mask idea was cooked up
by military planners and then bought by politicians. The plan is
based on "extreme scenarios," as Israeli journalist Amos Harel notes. And military planners always assume
worst-case scenarios, for both defense and offense. That's their job.

When the United States was creating its
massive "civil defense" program against nuclear attack in the 1950s, President
Eisenhower was also approving plans for a nuclear first strike against the Soviets. He did
not want war. He did not intend to start it. But as a professional soldier, he
wanted all his options open and plans in place for every contingency. When the
Reagan administration so publicly revived "civil defense" planning in the early
1980s, the Pentagon also publicly flirted with first-strike strategies as
contingency plans. Reagan eventually repudiated the idea, but the planning
surely went on.

Though we don't hear much about them, the
U.S. still has thousands of first-strike nukes at the ready, and at least in my
town those air-raid sirens still sound once a month as a "readiness test."

So it's not hard to understand why the IDF would peddle
this idea to the Israeli politicians. To the military mind, preparing for every
eventuality makes perfect sense.

The bigger question is why the politicians would buy it
-- with a price tag of anywhere from half-a-billion to three-quarters of a billion dollars, according to Harel, in a country increasingly
plagued by economic woes. There's no urgent need. The government expects to take
three years to get all the gas masks delivered (though it says that in an
emergency it would speed up the process).

The Israeli Post service and the two Israeli gas-mask
manufacturers who won big contracts will obviously profit. But the government
will be forced to cut back on other costs to pay for the gas masks, and it's a
safe bet the cut-backs won't come on the military side.

Harel (who writes for Israel's most respected newspaper, Ha'aretz)
suggests that Israeli leaders, like U.S. leaders, want to keep their
options open. He expects that "every future clash will entail a
massive assault on the home front, in a war that will be hard to win, or in
which it will be difficult to achieve a decisive 'image of victory.' This will
necessitate precise planning in regard to the Israeli public's stamina and to
the logical distribution of resources."

Image may well be the key issue here. In
wartime, when the public's stamina is always in question, political leaders
everywhere worry about images. What kept FDR awake at night during World War II
was not so much fear of the enemy as fear that his own people would lose their
stomach for war. He made a number of strategic decisions (like invading North
Africa and Italy) largely in hopes of creating
images of victory.

Israeli politicians certainly have a big
image problem when it comes to war. Israel suffered badly in Lebanon in 2006 and came away with little image
of victory in the late '08 attack on Gaza. That leaves the Israeli public with
decidedly mixed feelings about another fight. And that can limit the
politicians' options severely. Perhaps they think a populace wearing well-fitted
gas masks, from the infants on up, will let them go on fighting as long as they
like, whenever they like.

But the image problem haunts Israeli
politicians in what passes for peacetime, too. A politician's first job is to
create images popular enough to win the next election. That's especially true in
Israel, where (as Henry Kissinger
famously said) there is no foreign policy, only domestic policy.

Israeli politics are usually tenuous at
best, with one party or another always threatening to leave the ruling coalition
and bring down the government. The current Netanyahu government is no more
secure -- and arguably less secure -- than most of its predecessors. The nation
has nothing close to consensus, not only on issues of war and peace, but on a
host of economic, social, and religious issues too. The Prime Minister's
latest move to hold together his coalition was to promise "to renew negotiations [with the Palestinians] without

In tough political times, Israeli leaders
know that they always hold one winning card, if they know how to play it right:
the fear card. The same anxiety-driven "rally round the flag" effect that works
in so many nations -- as we saw vividly in the U.S. after the 9/11 attack -- has
a well-proven track record in Israel.

Now, says the former director of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission,
while the Israeli
defense establishment "is sending out false alarms" about Iran's nuclear program
"in order to grab a bigger budget," some Israeli politicians use the supposed
Iranian threat to divert attention away from problems at home. The imagined
threat of biochemical attack surely serves the same purpose.

In our rush to accuse politicians of
fear-mongering, though, we too often stop to ask the obvious question: Why does
it work? Before a leader can win the next election on a message of fear, there
has to be an electorate ready and willing to believe the message. That is
certainly true in Israel. Not all Israeli voters are lured by
images of impending attack, by any means. But enough are to keep the current
fragile coalition in power.

As Henry Siegman, former executive
director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in the New York Times, Netanyahu's message that "the
whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk
of another Holocaust ... is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too
many Israelis." Although the Israeli sense of victimization is now "nothing less
than pathological," Siegman lamented, it is still strong enough to
frighten the nation away from the path to reasonable peace negotiations.

Israel's military-industrial complex, its political
leaders, and too many of its voters all mistakenly see advantages in preparing
for the next war, even though most can say sincerely that they don't want a war.
That tragic bond, stretching back decades, still locks the Jewish nation into
its continuing cycle of insecurity. Gas masks are sure to tie the bond tighter.

Among it's child-friendly features, the
"Candy" version includes an "extremely wide lens," the IDF website
informs us. Long before anyone dons
the first one, though, just the news of "Candy" will narrow the vision of
Jewish-Israeli political culture even further, blinding millions
to the possibilities for peace that are at hand (like the largely-ignored
moderating trend within Hamas).

"Gas masks for everyone" is just the
latest in a long line of images that have kept Israelis trapped in
self-defeating fear. The only hope for real security for Israel is real security -- which means real
independence in a viable state -- for Palestine. Eventually, my little grandniece
will live to see most of her fellow Israelis realize that truth and make the
compromises needed to turn it into reality. But that's a lot less likely to
happen as long as the mailman is bringing gas

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