Iran has stored specially designed rockets that can be fired from ship to shore in a building in Syria near Lebanon’s border. Israeli intelligence has learned that in 24 hours Iran plans to deliver them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That will put Israeli communities along the Mediterranean coastline and the Haifa refinery at risk. Once in Lebanon, the IDF will find it difficult to destroy the missiles. The only realistic chance to do so is now!
Recently, I sat in the comfort of my home near Washington D.C. listening to an intelligence analyst relay these dismal hypothetical facts to me in a Zoom call. I, as part of a two-person team, played the role of Defense Minister in a simulation designed to highlight decision making by Israel’s cabinet in such a scenario. Other teams listening to the briefing took the role of:
- Prime Minister
- Foreign Minister
- Minister of Regional Cooperation; and
- Minister of Internal Security specializing in Israel and IDF military capabilities to defend the home front.
After listening to the intelligence briefing, we broke into private Zoom room meetings by ministry, received a written summary of relevant details, and had then had ten minutes to formulate a recommendation. A decision to strike had to weigh the likelihood of collateral damage, Hezbollah and Iran’s response, our capability, and the impact on foreign relations. But a decision not to destroy the missiles risked maintaining Israel’s deterrence, incurring future Israeli civilian casualties and damage to critical Israeli infrastructure, and tying Israel’s hands in a future confrontation.
The pressure was on us as we tried to decide which decision carried less risk.
All too soon, the moderator entered our private Zoom room. It was time to rejoin the group. Together, each ministry gave its recommendation. The Prime Minister decided. We thought the simulation was over.
It was not.
A klaxon sounded. It was three weeks later in simulation time. News reports of the consequences of our decision filled the screen. Images of casualties, explosions, and fire filled our screens. The realistic portrayal of breaking news on television created vivid impressions in all our minds.
For one participant, “the experience was an eye-opening portrayal of real-life events and their potential consequences.”
If we would have continued, we would have had further decisions to make. But this was only a test of whether the Zoom platform could be used to fulfill the goals of the designer of the simulation, the Alma Research and Education Center led by its CEO, Lt. Col. (ret) Sarit Zehavi. Without doubt, it did. The person playing the Prime Minister said it was “not only an enjoyable experience but very informative regarding the Israeli defense posture on the northern border”
* * *
This was not the first time I had played the simulation. I had that honor in March 2019 when it was first tested with a sizeable group. Then, over twenty people gathered in Alma’s large conference room before multiple screens. Then, like a few days ago, everyone was impressed. The simulation was unique; the scenario felt real and seeing the ramifications of each decision we made was sobering. Afterward, Sarit moved forward with making the simulation available to all future groups coming to Alma to learn more about security challenges in the north.
It was an enormous hit. And there was at least one surprise.
Overseas groups tended to be more hawkish. Israelis more hesitant and careful. This reversal of what one might expect was what I experienced during a simulation I ran several years ago. Then, ten people joined me to decide how to react to a different hypothetical crisis with Hezbollah. Five I considered more liberal and five less so. To my surprise, there was no correlation between political views and decision making in the crisis simulation.
Sarit’s goal was to teach how difficult it is to determine a course of action when all options are bad and there is no time to reflect. Despite participants being in the safety of a comfortable room in a modern building in Tefen Israel with a huge window facing a beautiful view of the western galilee, the simulation succeeds in its mission. You feel the tension. You experience the anguish.
But could that be replicated by Zoom and why is it important to do so?
* * *
Fortunately, I can report that the technology works, and the emotions are the same. Ben Berman, a management consultant and a young man who has just turned thirty and who was a participant in the Zoom simulation told me: “Everyone—ally, ambivalent, or critic of Israel should/MUST do this simulation. [It] made us feel the emotions and mental challenge of making difficult policy choices and watching the implications play out. I’ll never look at policy the same way.”
Ben’s reaction is precisely why Alma’s Zoom simulation and technology offers so much promise for understanding a myriad of issues that Israel often finds itself in. Now during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even when that era ends, the simulation and the technology backing it offers opportunity. Sarit plans to reach out to groups across the world. For the first time, people of different political persuasions, age groups, and nationalities will have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the predicaments Israel often finds itself in. Whether as part of a club, religious group, school or interest group–Alma’s simulation is a meaningful programming opportunity those groups should not be miss.
Another participant wrote me that the simulation “was an effective window to view and experience the competing considerations and tensions that seem to exist in the daily lives of the Israeli military, political, and diplomatic leaders responsible for security and safety in Israel.”
I could not agree more.