Country Profile: Israel
By Mr. Bar Arbiv, Analyst at IB Consultancy
Security Situation Overview
Located in the challenging geopolitical region of the Middle East, Israel is considered one of the top 5 regional military powers. Since it gained its independence in 1948, Israel has successfully fought against large, conventional armies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria’s as well as asymmetrical groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Palestinian militant groups. From 1949, Israel maintained its mandatory military conscription law, where Jewish and Druze citizens of the country, both men and women, are drafted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at 18 for approximately 2.6 years. As a key component of Israel’s security apparatus, the IDF’s main purpose is to “preserve the State of Israel, to protect its independence, and to foil attempts by its enemies to disrupt the norm of life within it”. In addition, Israel’s internal and external intelligence agencies, the “Shin-Bet” (General Security Service) and the Mossad, respectively, are tasked with carrying out covert and clandestine operations to strengthen the country’s internal and external security. As a result of this proactive focus on addressing its security challenges, Israel’s defense expenditure is the second-highest in the world (%GDP), as reports show that the country allocated 5.6% (21.7 Billion USD) of its GDP towards its 2020 defense budget. According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the main aim of maintaining the high defense expenditure is linked to and reflects the “importance of allowing the defense establishments to preserve stability in the face of many challenges around us.”
On its international threats dimension, the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) highlights two pressing scenarios that constitute Israel’s main external threats as of 2020-2021. Firstly, a “nuclear Iran” scenario, where Iran’s ramp-up of its nuclear weapons program results in an operational bomb, and secondly, the possibility of a war in the northern arena against Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. Such tensions can be seen in recent military and clandestine activities attributed to Israel, such as operation “Northern Shield”, which aimed at destroying Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels in the late months of 2018, as well as the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists in 2020.
In terms of its internal threats, the INSS concludes that heightened economic crisis and rising unemployment caused by the recent Covid-19 pandemic are the most pressing issues of the time. In the early months of 2020, such concerns were highlighted due to the country’s sharp rise in its unemployment rate, from 3.9% in February (pre-covid-19) to an unprecedented 27%, with more than 1 million jobless in mid-April. Such a peak was the result of the country’s reaction to the crisis, which led its economy to a near halt. However, according to the Bank of Israel, recent data shows that the country’s rapid vaccination campaign and the consequent ease of Covid-19 restrictions have dropped unemployment rates to 5.1% in the first quarter of 2021. Nonetheless, reports show that the country is projected to years of recovery due to the economic contraction caused by the Covid-19 crisis.
Covid-19 Response and Crisis Management Approach
Israeli crisis response and management of the pandemic have been generally described by the international community as successful. To contain the spread of the virus, the country favored non-pharmaceutical interventions in conjunction with its technological and military capabilities. For example, during the early months, PM Netanyahu tasked the Shin-Bet agency with conducting digital contact tracing – a surveillance tactic used in counterterrorism – to track down civilians who have been in close proximity to individuals confirmed as active Covid-19 cases. In addition, the country further used Mossad’s global network of covert connections to obtain medical equipment and supplies, such as PPEs, facemasks, testing kits, and ventilators.
In the late months of 2020, Israel decided to shift the focus of its Covid-19 mitigation campaign by relying on its newly emerging vaccination program. One of the campaign’s key components emphasized the reliance on the Israeli public health sector, which includes three national health organizations (Klalit, Maccabi, Leumi) with highly advanced digitized health care systems. By utilizing the existing system, data flows in form of medical records were used to construct coordination and execution of the vaccination campaign. In addition, the Israeli government agreed to provide vaccine manufacturers with weekly data regarding the vaccination campaign’s efficacy under a special agreement made with BioNTech-Pfizer. Consequently, Israel has been able to secure a relatively large amount of vaccine doses. Thus, it currently ranks as the country with the highest world vaccination, with over 60% of its population receiving at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
For decades, Israel maintained a policy of opacity (“Amimut”) regarding its WMD programs. Despite the relative agreement among experts regarding Israel’s possession of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, there are no publicly available open sources confirming the status of the country’s programs. Such an opacity approach is further illustrated by the Israeli refusal to ratify any of the major treaties governing the non-proliferation of WMD or arms control agreements. These include the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC). The country has further signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). However, in 2014, in an official statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country expressed its full support in “the goals and purposes of the Chemical Weapons Convention”. Israel had also recently adopted national export control regulations on biological and chemical materials consistent with the standards of the Australian Group.
In the field of explosives, Israel did not sign the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Instead, the country’s landmine ban policy revolves mainly around the clearance of non-operational minefields and its claims that it ceased all production and imports of such anti-personnel mines in the early 1980s.
International Initiatives and Cooperation
Despite its policy of opacity towards its CBRN and WMD programs, Israel actively participates in joint programs in the field as a part of its partnership in NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) program. For example, the country has led SPS projects such as:
- The development of novel anthrax countermeasures in cooperation with Turkey.
- The development of new chemical sensors and optical technologies for fast and sensitive detection of IEDs along with Spain.
- A workshop for countering the trafficking of WMD and CBRN materials in a maritime environment, in cooperation with Greece.
Additionally, Israel houses a Bomb Data Center and, as part of its membership in the International Bomb Data Center Working Group (IBDCWG), a collaborative body where data centers and recognized governmental agencies share technical intelligence on explosive and other information related to their unlawful use.
Overview of CBRNe and IED Stakeholders
On the governmental agency level, the official agency tasked with coordinating and integrating the various organizations responsible for national defense during emergency scenarios is the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA). The authority was established in 2007 as a result of the 2006 Second Lebanon War lessons learned report, and operates under Israeli MoD. Some of NEMA’s responsibilities include enhancing preparedness of emergency services providers and offices, assist MoD, emergency response bodies, and services provides during emergencies, and compose national management plans for emergency scenarios. In addition, Israel’s National Security Council’s Counterterrorism, Public Security, and Home Front Division is responsible for addressing issues such as unconventional and “super” terrorism, home front and crisis management, and determining policies regarding civil defense.
On the first-responders level, the main stakeholders tasked with crisis and CBRNe response are the Israeli Police Bomb Disposal Division, known as “Sabotuers” (“Chablanim”), the Israeli Fire and Rescue Authority Hazardous Material Units (HAZMAT), United Hazalah (“Ihud Hazalah”), and Magen David Adom (MDA, serves as the Israeli Red Cross organization).
Within its military domain, Israel relies on IDF capabilities and resources to address a wide variety of CBRNe tasks. Units from IDF Home Front Command specialize in civilian protection, and during crisis use their resources to instruct the civilian population on how to cope with the threats faced. Within IDF Engineering Corps, the “Yahalom” (Diamond) special forces unit is trained to handle unique engineering and CBRNe tasks such as EOD, demolition, and NBC disposal. However, a report produced by Israel’s State Comptroller in October 2020 found that in terms of IDF preparedness to address the threats of biological and CWAs, the military’s Ground Arm suffers from relatively low operational readiness. Following the identification of these gaps, IDF ramped up its chemical and biological warfare preparedness.
In sum, as one of the Middle East’s key regional players, Israel’s main security concerns revolve around Iran’s nuclear program and its northern arena, where Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah pose the main threat. Surprisingly, the primary internal threat identified by the INSS posits the economic impact of Covid-19 on Israel’s unemployment rate and economic contraction. However, since the country has successfully implemented its vaccination campaign strategy, it is projected to regain its economic losses in years.
Israel’s long-standing position that the regional circumstances and dynamics in the middle east require it to maintain what can be described as a “non-ratification policy” of any major international agreement governing the field of CBRNe and WMDs. Such a stance is also evident in Israel’s opacity approach, as the country does not formally confirm or deny the existence of its nuclear stockpile or provide details about its WMD programs. However, due to its knowledge and expertise in the field, Israel has been cooperating with international stakeholders, such as NATO SPS program, in developing CBRNe and WMD technologies.
Bar recently graduated from his Bachelor’s degree at Leiden University’s faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, majoring in Security Studies. Prior to his graduation, he joined the IBC team in May 2021.