When The Iran Obsession Meets The Free-Market Fetish

All the talk about war with Iran didn't make me nervous, even during the past year, when Benjamin Netanyahu has talked about the uselessness of sanctions to stop Iran's nuclear program day and night, when carefully placed leaks in American papers predicted Israeli air strikes in the spring or, when spring was past, before the U.S. election, when Israeli military experts have warned that not only Iran but also Hizbollah and Hamas could retaliate with missiles against Israeli cities, when analysts have discussed whether the Assad regime in Syria would welcome the diversion and rain chemical weapons on us, when Netanyahu declared he was ready to take full responsibility before the commission of inquiry that would follow the war as inevitably as Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah.

I stayed calm because I remembered how Israel prepared in the past for a potential attack on its cities. That was in late 1990, as the U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait approached and we wondered whether Saddam Hussein's missiles would have chemical warheads. Within weeks, the IDF supplied gas masks to everyone in the country. During the recent tensions, in contrast, distribution of gas masks has been lackadaisical. Ergo, Netanyahu's bellicosity was posturing, intended to put pressure on Washington.

Lately, though, I've realized that Netanyahu may really be committed to war. If the public is unprotected, it's because he's equally committed to the free market.

In 1990, the army's Civil Defense corps—precursor of today's Home Front Command—handled distribution. We received individually addressed cards in our mail boxes, instructing us where to receive our equipment. In my neighborhood, soldiers set up shop in a daycare center. When my wife picked up our masks and the gas-proof box for our two-year-old, she was required to see a short film on what to do during a missile alert.

Gas mask distribution began again in February 2010. There have been no cards in mailboxes. I'm a news addict, but I've seen no newspaper or internet ads ordering me to pick up my family's gear. Last spring a very anxious acquaintance became the first person I knew to do so. In August, my wife and I decided it was time to get masks, partly because of the shrill war debate, partly because we learned that the sole distribution center in Jerusalem was closing at the month's end. By then, enough people were coming for masks that the wait was several hours long. We decided to exploit the option of ordering by phone and paying for home delivery.

The Home Front Command's web page referred me to the Israel Postal Company's site, where I found the phone number. In October 2009, it turns out, the company won the contract to distribute gas masks. This isn't pure privatization, because the Israel Postal Company is government-owned. Then again, the company replaced the government postal service, and can eventually be sold to investors, as has happened with other state-owned companies. It can already bid to provide services more cheaply or efficiently than, say, the army could. When I called the phone number recently, the woman who billed my credit card told me that home delivery in Jerusalem will take place in January. If I wanted masks sooner, I could drive to Rishon Letzion, the closest town where a distribution center is open this month.

The doctrine that replaced social democracy in Israel says that corporations are always better than government services, private ownership better than state ownership. If an agency can't be entirely privatized, the labor can be bought from private firms. That reduces the number of people getting government benefits, as employees or even as soldiers. It has become common practice for public schools to hire teachers through subcontractors, evading union contracts. Private firms now operate mess halls in major army bases in the center of the country. A soldier I know well tells me the food passed muster in outlying bases. When he served in base with a privatized mess hall, dinner was "inedible." The army, he said, pays the catering firm "a set amount, and if it cuts quality or the employees' pay, it makes a higher profit." He and his comrades burned their meager salaries - or their parents' money - on takeout delivered to the gate.

Blind faith in the market isn't a Likud monopoly. But no prime minister has been more sincerely, unquestioningly committed to that creed that Netanyahu. The catch is that no prime minister has been more loudly dedicated to military action as sole viable answer to Iran's nuclear program. Failure to prepare Israel for potential consequences of launching a war doesn't necessarily mean he's faking his threats. He may simply be cleaving to both of his dangerous fixations. This recognition makes me, at last, somewhat nervous.