Whither Israel’s Grand Strategies?

By | Dec 05, 2011
2011 March-April, Israel

Mainstream Sunni Arab countries—traditionally adversaries of Israel—are now its potential allies
in the struggle against Iran and militant Islam.


One of the signal characteristics of Israel’s security thinking in the country’s early decades was its development of grand strategies—concepts for coordinating the nation’s resources toward attaining its existential objectives in war and peace. It would be hard to find another country anywhere that, starting from scratch, honed its strategic thinking to such a degree in order to deal with adversity. Beginning even before independence in 1948, David Ben-Gurion and a handful of aides and advisors sought to develop a series of concepts for overcoming the hostility of the entire Arab world.

Judging by Israel’s triumph and rise to prosperity through the decades, they did a good job. Yet a brief reexamination of those original grand strategies (italicized below), seen through the prism of contemporary Israel and the current Middle East, reveals just how strikingly—in some cases alarmingly—things have changed.

Link up with a great—or superpower— ally. Israel won its war of independence with Soviet arms, delivered via Czechoslovakia. It quickly turned to an alliance with France. Since 1967, its strategic ally has been the United States. Despite the many bumps on the road of Israeli-American cooperation, this grand strategy is still working.

Maintain an opaque nuclear deterrent
. This grand strategy, too, is still working, but it is being seriously challenged by Iran and called into question internationally, particularly as part of the growing challenge to Israel’s legitimacy. If Iran does go nuclear—meaning the failure of Israel’s grand strategy of denying enemy nuclear capability by force (Iraq, 1981; Syria, 2007)—much of the Arab Middle East will follow suit, and Israel will have to develop a new nuclear strategy.

Under the periphery doctrine, Israel allied itself with non-Arab or non-Muslim state actors on the margins of the region—Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia—who shared its concern over the hegemonic and aggressive designs of Arab nationalism. Today that doctrine is in shambles. Iran leads the militant Islamist drive against Israel; Turkey has developed its own revolutionary diplomatic grand strategy, under which it is forging alliances with everyone in the region but Israel. Of the “periphery” ethnic groups that Israel worked with in past decades against Arab and Muslim encroachment, we have witnessed some achievements—Iraqi Kurdish autonomy, southern Sudanese independence—but these play little role in Israel’s current relations with the Arab world.

Indeed, in today’s Middle East, Israel’s potential allies against Iran and militant Islam are precisely the Sunni Arab mainstream countries against which it fought wars and sought alliances in the past. Yet the Arab states have become so weak and chaotic—the turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is symptomatic—that even if Israel made peace with Syria and the Palestinians, it would be hard pressed to develop a genuine long-term alliance with Arab partners.

In combating its militant Islamist non-state neighbors, Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel’s traditional grand strategies for war-fighting have also become increasingly irrelevant.

Carrying the war into enemy territory (“the best defense is offense”) no longer works. Israelis—military and civilian—recognize the ills of occupation, while the guerrilla/terrorist enemy refuses to talk peace and wants nothing more than to draw the army into more occupation, where it can fight a war of attrition against it.

Occupying commanding or critical territory
made sense in 1949 when Ben Gurion agreed to take back 200,000 refugees if he could have the Gaza Strip as well. But it’s pointless when the enemy is firing thousands of rockets at the Israeli south and the emphasis is on defensive anti-rocket missiles and civil defense planning. Today, command of the air and rapid mobility render territory less crucial to victory, and occupation affects the demographic balance under Israel’s control, weakening its drive to remain a Jewish state—especially now that aggrandizement of Israel’s population through massive Jewish immigration appears to be over.

Is territories for peace (a grand strategy developed later, after 1967) still viable? It worked with Egypt and, on a lesser scale, Jordan. The Israeli security establishment (though not the Netanyahu government) still endorses it regarding Syria. But accumulated experience has led many Israelis to doubt the worth of the sort of cold peace Israel has thus far experienced with the Arabs. The security establishment would offer Syria the Golan, not so much for the icy peace we are likely to get from Damascus in return, but rather for the blow this would strike at Iran’s hegemonic drive into the Levant. And the West Bank issue can no longer be defined as merely territories for peace, complicated as it has become by the issues of settlements, demography and the weakness of Palestinian leadership.

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