Traveling through Israel last week, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) caught a glimpse of what homeland security in the United States might look like 50 years from now.
“Fifty years of violence hardened two populations in dealing with these kinds of lethal threats,” Harman said of the Israelis and Palestinians. “Fifty years of exposure focuses the mind.”
Harman designed for herself a five-day tour of the inner workings of the Israeli political, intelligence and security systems. As the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, she has been playing an integral role in the formation of the new U.S. homeland security department, which was passed in the House and is now being debated in the Senate.
Garnering information from Israel’s experience is one of her top priorities, Harman said.
“Israel is the test pad for terror attacks on the homeland,” she told JTA upon her return to Capitol Hill. “Whatever could be out there, they’ve experienced.”
Harman also met with Mohammad Dahlan, a security adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and P.A. Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiyeh.
Touring Israel, the Jewish lawmaker found tactics she believes the United States should emulate. For example, she spoke excitedly about Israel’s civil guard, a volunteer force that carries weapons, is trained in police tactics and is used to augment the police force.
She liked Israeli advancements in airline safety, including new technology that can identify a plane’s pilot before it enters Israeli airspace to make sure the plane hasn’t been hijacked.
She also was encouraged by the clout and authority of Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, Israel’s homeland security chief.
“Uzi Landau has the power we need to give our secretary of homeland security,” she said.
But the two countries’ situations are not entirely analogous. She repeatedly noted Israel’s small size and population. Controlling the terrorist threat and managing bureaucracy would be considerably more difficult in the United States than in Israel.
And Israeli protection for its citizens’ civil liberties are not as developed as in the United States, Harman said.
“Historically, there has been a lot of contrast between Israel’s view of human rights and ours,” she said. “But it is drastically becoming more similar than different.”
For months, Landau and other Israeli officials have been urging that the U.S.’ new homeland security department include an office for international cooperation. Harman said she is confident that the office will be included.
Harman’s conversations also taught her that even thorough security is not a panacea. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told her that a bakery he was shopping in blew up less than a minute after he left the store, despite the vast security detail he travels with.
“Even the best security in the world cannot protect against everything,” she said. “Suicide bombers blend in.”
There could be potential suicide bombers in the United States right now, Harman says.
Harman’s meetings also focused heavily on Iraq and the threat that President Saddam Hussein poses to Israel.
Virtually all political and security leaders she met with — including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — strongly support U.S. military action against Iraq, she said.
“Breaking the chain between Iraq, Iran and Syria is critical, and if we break the chain, we would change the dynamic in the region,” Harman said Ben-Eliezer told her. “Any change is better than the status quo.”
A U.S.-led attack on Iraq may well lead Iraq to launch strikes against Israel, possibly even with chemical and biological weapons.
Harman said she believes Israelis are willing to face the short-term consequences of such a war if it brings about Saddam’s downfall.