Since its founding in 1948, the State of Israel has experienced numerous security threats, some of which have been an existential threat to the Jewish state. In May 1967, during the waiting period before the Six Day War, a second Holocaust atmosphere prevailed among the Israeli public in light of the concentration of the Egyptian Army on Israel’s southern border, and the repeating threats by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in which he said all Jews would be eliminated.
In October 1973, after the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched the Yom Kippur War, catching decision-makers in Jerusalem and IDF generals surprised and unprepared, some Israeli leaders warned of the “destruction of the third temple.”
When Iraq, Syria and Iran, all hostile toward Israel, tried to develop nuclear weapons, the Israeli leadership realized that a nuclear capability in one of these countries hands would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state’s survival.
In each of these examples, all of which constituted existential threats to Israel, leaders in Jerusalem used measures to eliminate these threats (for example, the IDF’s preemptive strike against the Egyptian Army in 1967, the destruction of the nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, and the numerous clandestine preventive operation conducted by the Mossad that delayed the Iranian nuclear program).
In each case, the IDF and the rest of the security echelon were at the forefront of the struggle against Israel’s security threats. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus demonstrates that there has been a change in the character of the security challenges the Jewish state is facing.
While in the past the prevailing view was that the Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah missiles and Palestinian terrorism posed the greatest security threats to Israel, today we are currently witnessing a new security threat that can potentially cause the deaths of many Israelis, even in greater numbers than the traditional threats.
Another significant change arises concerning the tools Israel is using to confront this new security threat. While the IDF and the rest of the security establishment have played a key role in tackling those traditional military threats, regarding the coronavirus, it is doctors, nurses, scientists and other healthcare practitioners who are at the forefront.
This fact has significant implications for the way Israel should prepare itself against any future epidemic security threats, as they must be considered when the leadership in Jerusalem will decide on Israel’s future national security strategy.
The notion that threats are not just military threats is not new to the field of international relations and security studies. While traditionally the term “security” was sought through military might, and the referent object, the thing to be secured, was the state, after the end of the Cold War, as the term security and the core assumptions about the referent object had begun to occupy scholars’ thoughts, alternative approaches to security that offered different referent objects started to evolve.
THUS, IN ORDER to have a comprehensive understanding of what is security, it was vital to broaden the security agenda to include threats other than those related to the military dimension. For that purpose, securitization theory was developed by Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap De-Wilde, from the “Copenhagen School,” in a broader attempt to redefine the concept of security, as it introduces a wider security perception, which comprises not only military security but also political, societal, economic, and environmental security.
Consequently, in adopting a constructivist approach to the study of security, securitization theory explores the process in which social entities transform issues into security threats. According to the theory, when something is perceived by the government (or other securitizing actor) as an existential threat to the state (or other referent object), it becomes securitized, and hence extraordinary measures are being executed in order to eliminate the threat.
These measures can be a preemptive attack (as it was the case in the Six Day War); a limited military operation (as the bombardments of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syrian one in 2007); or quarantine and other health regulations to prevent the spread of an epidemic (as we are witnessing today regarding the coronavirus).
Another contribution of securitization theory regarding the understanding of security themes is that unlike the realist concept, which perceives threats objectively (there is a real threat), securitization theory adheres to the idea that threats are perceived intersubjectively (there is a perceived threat).
For instance, while in countries like China, Italy and Israel the coronavirus was perceived as a security threat, in Belarus, as of today, it is not, as the local government stated that the coronavirus poses no danger at all.
In conclusion, in order for Israel to successfully cope with security threats such as the coronavirus, Jerusalem must prepare itself with the same degree of seriousness as it prepares for a possible war against Iran. Thus, as it purchases weapons such as submarines, fighter jets and smart bombs, Israel must equip its healthcare system with the best equipment and in sufficient quantity to deal with future health security threats.
In essence, Jerusalem must understand that the corona crisis might only be the precursor to a more severe epidemic outbreak, which, if erupted, could lead to the number of casualties the State of Israel has never experienced before. Hence, the healthcare system must be financially strengthened and given a significant priority similar to the Israeli security forces, since ultimately, as the corona crisis illustrates daily, and not only in Israel, epidemics can pose a security threat and can cause devastating consequences to each state’s economy and civilians.
The coronavirus crisis is a warning sign and a wake-up call to the Israeli leadership. Let’s hope that someone in Jerusalem listens, assimilates, and contemplates about the future potential security threats that Israel may face. Better sooner than later!
Ori Wertman is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the International Center for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales. Christian Kaunert is a professor of policing and security, and director of the International Center for Policing and Security at University of South Wales, and Jean Monnet chair of EU counter-terrorism.