As Americans prepare to elect a new president, they must do so recognizing that whomever they choose will have to navigate the country through disaster.
Every president must face crises, without knowing in advance what those crises will be. In seeking for guidance on how to confront this difficult situation, the next president can take lessons from Israel when it comes to dealing with disasters.
One thing Israel has in spades in resilience, the ability to bounce back after taking a blow. Americans can tick off the major domestic terror attacks the country has faced on one hand: 9/11, Oklahoma City, the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino. Israel, in contrast, has suffered through far too many terror attacks to count. Furthermore, these attacks have been from a multitude of types: suicide bombings, bus attacks, missile launches, hijackings, attacks on Olympic athletes, assassinations, and many more. But Israel has shown a remarkable resilience in the face of these attacks. After a terror attack, the authorities respond, clean-up crews spring into action, and storeowners—sooner, rather than later—reopen shuttered establishments.
This kind of resiliency does not emerge accidentally. Israel puts both resources and effort into its resiliency project. According to Meir Elran, director of Israel’s Homeland Security Program, resilience among the civilian population requires preparation, information dissemination, and leadership, especially at the local level.
It also helps to have a relatively wealthy population with a high percentage of veterans from universal military service. After Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, Elran noted that the Israeli populace maintained the necessary emergency routines while also returning to normal behavior immediately after disruptive events. During Operation Protective Edge, as the Israelis called it, there were eleven ceasefires when people went back and forth. Eighty percent of the people in the affected areas left when hostilities began, but 95 percent of them returned to their homes within two days after the last ceasefire took force.
Israel’s civilian reaction to the Gaza War demonstrates at least three key lessons in resilience.
First, resilience is not a given; it can and should be built and enhanced continuously in advance. In addition, civilian resilience is more complex and challenging than infrastructure resilience. It should be handled in accordance with the relevant threats and specific circumstances. Third, and perhaps most importantly, strong societal resilience is a primary leverage for countering terror and attenuating its intended impact.
The preparation and thought Israel puts into resilience means that the kind of citywide shutdowns that took place in Boston after the marathon bombings would be unthinkable in Israel.
Attacks take place, and far too often, but the citizens move on.
The American president must lead by example and make sure that even if the US is attacked, life goes on, and that terror cannot defeat the will to live, and to fight.
Cyber-attacks are another reality of modern life – and of disaster preparedness.
A massive cyber-attack on America’s power grid or transportation network could have devastating consequences nationwide.
Here again, Israel can provide a model. Israel regularly experiences attempted cyber disruptions during flare-ups in conflicts with terror groups like Hamas. During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Palestinian hackers, with an assist from Iran, attempted what Israel characterized as “a major attack” on Israeli operations. That attack, which aimed to disable Israeli websites, failed, as did a 2016 attack on Israel’s power grid, but Israeli security forces now recognize that cyber defense is a standard part of modern warfare. The Israeli Defense Forces even have a division specifically dedicated to cyber defense. According to the unnamed head of that division, in this latest war, “for the first time, there was an organized cyber defense effort alongside combat operations in the field. This was a new reality.” The Israeli official expected the cyber struggle to intensify over time. “I won’t be surprised if, next time, we meet [terrorists] in the cyber dimension,” he warned.
Because of the intensity of these threats, Israel is a global leader in cybersecurity efforts. This leadership is in both the private and the military sector, as there is a great deal of migration between elite military units and cutting-edge technology firms. As a result, according to Dudu Mimran, CTO of the Cyber Security Research Center at Ben-Gurion University, “Israel is one of the few countries positioned to become a worldwide cyber leader. In the world of cyber (where there is a) high threat level, such leadership is much needed.”
Going forward, the United States must be prepared to provide this kind of leadership as well.
From radical Islamic groups— such as Islamic State—penetrating social media as a means of inspiring and recruiting jihadi fighters, to Chinese and Russian hackers accessing government records, the US must be able to have the resources and capabilities to combat both cyber and conventional threats, and be resilient in response to successful attacks. If a small, powerful country like Israel can learn these lessons, the US should be able to follow suit. America’s next president must make sure that the nation is ready for anything, and Israel can provide a model for such preparation.
The author is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.