What the Gilboa Prison escape says about the Israeli paradox

First World Israel is a country whose intelligence services are renowned internationally for their professionalism and competence. Third World Israel is the exact opposite.

 THIRD WORLD and First World Israel: Police officers and prison guards mill around the scene of the prison escape at Gilboa Prison this month. (photo credit: FLASH 90)
THIRD WORLD and First World Israel: Police officers and prison guards mill around the scene of the prison escape at Gilboa Prison this month.
(photo credit: FLASH 90)

As Israelis were about to welcome in the New Year they were astounded by their own country’s conspicuous ineptitude with six convicted Palestinian terrorists somehow managing to break out of the Gilboa maximum security prison. Although for the Prisons Service it was the first such escape in over two decades, the jailbreak was not an aberration, but symptomatic of the larger dichotomy between First World Israel and Third World Israel, two “Israels” that coexist side by side.

First World Israel is a country whose intelligence services are renowned internationally for their professionalism and competence, rivaling the mythical James Bond in their bold effectiveness. They have been credited with a series of successful cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the discovery and seizure of the Iranian nuclear archive in the heart of Tehran and the surgical elimination of the commander of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, reportedly targeting him with a remote-control AI-operated sniper machine gun while he and his 11 bodyguards drove along a country road.

Third World Israel is the exact opposite. It is a country of Keystone Cops where wardens at supposedly maximum security prisons fall asleep on duty, prison intelligence is incapable of receiving advanced knowledge of escape plans, a single prison officer is unable to effectively police multiple video screens and where inmates can learn from smartphones that the prison architect’s website shows an underground cavity under their cell that provides a pathway to flee captivity.

First World Israel prioritizes the lives of its civilian population and utilizes its technological prowess to safeguard its citizens. It put a major effort into creating the Iron Dome system, developed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets fired at Israel’s cities, towns and villages, providing a protective shield that has saved countless Israeli lives.

Third World Israel is a country where public safety is only given lip service. With 45 men and boys crushed to death during the Lag Ba’omer festivities on Mount Meron despite multiple warnings of an imminent disaster due to chronic overcrowding – the various state and religious institutions involved continue to vie for avoiding accountability.

First World Israel leads the world in transportation technologies, from Waze that equips drivers with GPS navigation software revolutionizing road travel to Mobileye that provides advanced driver assistance systems enhancing road safety and making self-driving vehicles a reality.

Third World Israel has a third-rate system of public transportation. Despite the multiple government decisions, the millions spent and the numerous promises made, Israel’s largest metropolis still awaits a functioning underground railway network – this in “the city that never rests” and where gridlock traffic is the norm.

In transportation, First and Third World synthesize into one at a single Tel Aviv bus stop where commuters check their apps to see the exact arrival time of the bus they require (First World), yet no one has thought to provide them with shade from the sweltering summer sun (Third World).

 The National Cyber Directorate in Jerusalem (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) The National Cyber Directorate in Jerusalem (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

FIRST AND Third Worlds similarly merge together in Israel’s judiciary which is renown internationally for its competence, professionalism and independence (First World), but can take years – and sometimes a decade – for a court to deliver a ruling (Third World). Unfortunately, the axiom “justice delayed is justice denied” applies all too often.

I experienced First World Israel first-hand last year when I upgraded my old national ID card for the new biometric one. I filled out the form on the Ministry of Interior website, scheduled my appointment online and was received at the Ministry at the allotted time, following which my new biometric identification was sent to me via registered mail; a prime example of First World E-government.

I have also experienced direct interaction with Third World Israel O-government (“O” is for Ottoman). Twice I was volunteered by my family to vouch for the Jewishness of a sister-in-law before she could be married by the Rabbinate. Twice I showed up at the Municipal Religious Council and on both occasions I was astounded (although not surprised) by the seemingly 19th-century work processes. The time of my scheduled appointment had only a casual relationship with the time of my actual appointment; in one case the relevant official apparently was not even in the building.

All this demonstrates the larger Israeli paradox. On the one hand, there is an Israel that is efficient, industrious, problem solving, results oriented and hi-tech; an Israel where outstanding intelligence work and effective interagency coordination within a fortnight successfully recaptures all of the six terrorists who escaped Gilboa prison. On the other hand, there is an Israel that seems to amalgamate the vociferous mayhem of the Polish shtetl with a Mediterranean carefree casualness and Middle Eastern dysfunction. This breeds an Israel that muddles along with an yihye beseder (it will be OK) mentality that made possible the escape of the six inmates in the first place.

These two Israels function in parallel, struggling for hegemony with each competing for dominance over different aspects of our national life. In many areas, First World Israel reigns supreme, in others it remains Third World Israel.

Maybe Third World Israel has some quaint appeal. Like the slightly mad uncle we meet on Jewish holidays, it can add some color and cheer to our lives. But if the State of Israel is going to succeed in facing the array of very real challenges it confronts, First World Israel must be triumphant. Wardens “asleep on the job” at Israel’s maximum security prisons are hardly a prescription for a more promising and secure future.

The writer was formerly a senior adviser to the prime minister and is a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. Follow him at @markregev on Twitter.