A New Concept for a Changing Reality

For 60 years, Israel has adhered to the same national defense concept. Now, Professor Alex Mintz and Dr. Shaul Shay offer a new concept, which is more appropriate for the threats on the modern battlefield

Israel’s national defense concept was shaped in the 1950s by Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion. This concept has never been consolidated into a structured, binding doctrine and remained a theory whose fundamental elements were acceptable to the defense-political establishment of the State of Israel throughout its existence.

The defense concept, as presented by Ben-Gurion, assumes that a basic asymmetry (with regard to the geographic and demographic aspects and the scope of economic resources) exists between the State of Israel and the Muslim and Arab world surrounding it.

As an outcome of that asymmetry, Israel should, according to this concept, achieve an acceptance of its existence on the part of the Arab states. Along with the aspiration for peace, Israel should lead the Arab side to the conclusion that there is no practical way to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel. This should be achieved through the construction of an “iron wall” of military and diplomatic strength, as Ze’ev Jabotinsky had suggested as far back as during the 1920s.

Since the defense concept had been consolidated, several attempts were made to revise it, but despite the complex and serious work done in this context, the conclusions of the committees established over the years to address this issue were never adopted by the governments of Israel.

The Need for a Revised Defense Concept

Globalization processes, technological revolutions in the fields of communication, cyberspace and outer space, regional and global geo-political changes, changes in the nature of warfare and changes within Israeli society, all necessitate a fresh examination of Israel’s defense concept and the adaptation thereof to the dynamic reality of the 21st century. At the same time, it should be stressed that the basic elements (population, territory, resources) of the old asymmetry between Israel and its neighbors and the Muslim and Arab world have remained unchanged. Of particular importance is the adaptation of the defense concept to the objectives of the State and to its changing regional and strategic environment.

Over the last few decades, dramatic changes have taken place in the geo-political fabric of the Middle Eastern countries. Since 2011, pursuant to the Arab Spring revolutions, the region has been characterized by instability and crises, some of which are still under way. The region has become uncertain about its future. The changes that took place in the past and that still continue in the present necessitate a fresh examination of Israel’s defense concept, which had been based on a totally different geo-political reality.

Several primary trends currently characterize the Middle East: pursuant to the Arab Spring revolutions, the Arab nation-state, which had provided the foundation for the regional order, is beginning to lose stability and some of the countries in the region experience disintegration processes and are deteriorating into the status of failed states.

Countries that are not homogeneous with regard to the make-up of their populations have the potential of disintegrating from within into autonomous enclaves (geographic, ethnic, cultural and functional). Those enclaves come to be dominated by mostly radical elements that enforce their rule and influence by force of arms and an atmosphere of terror.

The Islamic terrorist organizations constitute a primary challenge for the security forces of various countries in the region: for the Egyptian Army in the Sinai, for Al-Assad’s Army in Syria, for the Iraqi Army, for the Army in the Yemen, et al.

Israel is currently surrounded by non-state players: Hezbollah, dominating Southern Lebanon, Syrian rebel organizations, including Jihadist organizations, near the border on the Golan Heights, the Palestinian Authority in the Judea & Samaria Region, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and Jihadist organizations in the Sinai.

The threats and challenges presented by the regional upheaval, the crisis in Israel’s relations with Turkey and the complex reality that has evolved pursuant to the events of the Arab Spring compel Israel to attempt and locate new opportunities for the establishment of coalitions with other countries in the Middle East and outside it, in the Balkans and in Eastern Africa.

Three strategic domains can be identified where Israel will be interested in promoting formal and informal alliances. In the Eastern Mediterranean – Greece, Cyprus and other Balkan countries. In the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States (the initiative of the Arab League may provide a basis for regional cooperation). Finally, in Eastern Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda (the Christian East-African countries that feel threatened by radical Islam).

Iran’s Nuclearization

Iran, according to the statements made by its leaders, aspires to establish a regional hegemony in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world. The Iranian nuclear program is intended to support these aspirations. The nuclearization of Iran has the potential of posing an existential threat and changing the regional strategic balance (including the possibility of starting a nuclear arms race of other countries in the region).

But even before Iran has attained the ability to launch a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear device toward Israel, thereby positioning Israel in the face of what can evolve into an existential threat, it is safe to assume that as Iran’s nuclear weapon program progresses, the terrorist groups supported by it will enjoy more latitude as they feel more protected by Iran’s substantial nuclear capabilities. Iran can also direct threats against the operations of the IDF in the Gaza Strip or in Lebanon, with the intention of influencing the considerations of the political echelon in Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an adverse effect within the domestic arena as well as on Israel’s image on the international arena. In the long run, this conflict constitutes a threat to the Jewish-democratic identity of the State of Israel. The terrorism that is an outcome of the prolongation of the conflict constitutes a defense challenge that calls for a unique solution.

On the defense/security level, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads to threats by the terrorist organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others) through two primary aspects: curved trajectory weapons and suicide attacks. Additionally, there is the danger of a popular uprising that combines civil protest with terrorism. A trudging diplomatic process does not contribute to the extrication of Israel from the danger of international isolation.

The political weakness of the USA, the economic crisis it has not yet emerged from, its pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan followed by the reduction of the size of the US military and Washington’s attitude toward the issue of the Iranian nuclear program have all raised concern among the allies of the USA in the Middle East.

The rapid development of the US energy economy and the reduced dependence of the USA on Middle Eastern oil could also contribute to a reduction in US involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.

The American weakness highlights the Russian policy, which is intended to establish for Russia the status of a major influence in the Middle East. This is reflected in the Russian support for its allies in the region, particularly the Al-Assad regime in Syria (as well as in the attempt to extend its influence to include Egypt, which was badly disappointed by the attitude of the USA).

China is also evolving into a factor wielding an increasing influence in the Middle East and the African continent. As the world’s second-largest economy with enormous needs for energy supplies, China is interested in securing the regular supply of oil and other raw materials that are vital to its economy. At the same time, China is interested in regional stability and strictly avoids any involvement in the regional conflicts.

The weakening American influence in the Middle East could constitute a catalyst for growing Chinese influence and involvement in the region in the long run.

Owing to the complex geo-strategic position of the State of Israel and the basic asymmetry between Israel and its enemies, Israel has aspired, since its establishment, to be a part of a treaty or a near-treaty alliance, at least with one global superpower. The “special relations” between the USA and Israel are the single most important political and defense asset Israel possesses on the international arena.

Israel has a vital interest not only in maintaining these special relations with the USA, but also in advancing them to the maximum extent possible. The indispensability of the special relations is particularly prominent in the present era, as Israel has entered a state of increasing international isolation. The continued support of the USA is vital for the purpose of coping with the de-legitimizing processes Israel has experienced in various circles of the international system. Consequently, it is essential that Israel assemble a joint agenda with the USA, while consolidating the picture of the Middle Eastern world of the US government and establishing effective coordination and understanding on the Palestinian issue and the Iranian threat.

Cyberspace, Outer Space & the Maritime Arena

Cyberspace is occupying an increasingly important position in all of the civilian and defense fields of activity around the world. As far as cyber warfare is concerned, defending the national infrastructure and utility systems (energy, water, computers, communication, transportation and economy) as well as vital security infrastructure systems is of the utmost importance. On the national level, a comprehensive, system-wide computer system defense concept is required.

Cyberspace enables the opponent to inflict severe damage without making any violent physical moves, while keeping a “low signature” and without leaving “fingerprints”. The numerous changes that have taken place in this field challenge the existing defense concepts and necessitate a fresh examination of the basic concepts, followed by the necessary adjustments and adaptations of the defense concept so that it may provide solutions to the new threats.

The evolution of space technologies around the world, the changing nature of warfare and the expansion of the domain that threatens Israel have turned the use of space into a vital defense need for the State of Israel, and necessitate that this dimension be incorporated in its national defense concept.

In the last few decades, the circle of threats imposed on the State of Israel has expanded as an outcome of the ability of more distant countries (like Iraq and Iran) to threaten Israel by long-range missiles that may be fitted with unconventional warheads. This threat profile is known as an “outer circle threat” or a “threat by third-circle countries”. The use of outer space constitutes, therefore, an additional strategic dimension for the State of Israel (in addition to the traditional dimensions of land, sea and air). In the defense-military context, the space dimension has emerged, since the technological revolution and the changes in the nature of the conflicts, as a primary element of the modern concept for the employment of military power. In combination with computer technologies, it produces the integrated complex of intelligence collection, command and control and strike systems, and actually multiplies the strength of each one of these three elements and all three jointly on the strategic, operational and tactical levels of the conduct of operations.

Sixty years after Israel’s defense concept had been consolidated by David Ben-Gurion, the specific gravity of the maritime element in that defense concept no longer matches its real weight, so the defense concept calls for updates and revisions, including the recognition of the strategic importance of the maritime arena as a fundamental element in the national defense concept of Israel. Nearly 15% of Israel’s population live along the Mediterranean shore, and most of Israel’s vital infrastructure and utility systems and facilities (power stations, refineries, desalination plants, sea ports, defense installations and other facilities) are concentrated along the coast.

The Mediterranean Sea is also the lifeline that links Israel with Europe and America, while the Red Sea links it with Africa and Asia. Over the last few years, several new elements have been added to the fundamental geo-strategic elements mentioned above. These new elements necessitate a fresh examination of the maritime arena in the context of Israel’s defense concept. They include the discovery of the natural gas deposits off the shores of Israel, the specification of an “exclusive economic zone” and the need to protect these strategic assets, the increasing importance of the Red Sea as a trading corridor with the Asian superpowers (China, India and Japan) and the plans for the large-scale development of Eilat and the vicinity (a new sea port, a new airport, a railroad, the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit project, et al.).

The Red Sea constitutes an arena where Israel resists the Iranian strategic penetration into the region by countering Iran’s attempts to smuggle arms to the Palestinians through this arena and the terrorism threats by World Jihad from the Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The strategic confrontation with Iran in the context of the development of Iran’s military nuclear capabilities calls for an Israeli deployment where a part of the solution involves the maritime arena and the ability to stage long-range operations and operate over a long period of time through this arena.

As stated, the national defense concept of Israel is based on four fundamental elements: deterrence, early warning, overbalance and home defense (the home defense element was added in 2006, pursuant to a report by former minister Dan Meridor which was adopted by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz).

The State of Israel is currently threatened by more than 100,000 rockets and missiles kept by the terrorist organizations, which cover substantial parts of the Israeli territory. The revised defense concept should specify the required response for this threat, using all of the resources available to the State of Israel (political, military-defensive, military-offensive and resources associated with protecting and strengthening the resolve of the population).

Adaptability should be included as an additional element in the defense concept of Israel. Owing to the dynamics and the rate of the regional and internal geo-political changes, which have become frequent and lasting and have included the states that directly confront Israel, a need has arisen for including another element in the defense concept, in addition to the four fundamental elements.

This element is adaptability, namely – the ability to adapt to a dynamic and changing reality. This does not refer to the tactical aspect of this concept, but rather to the conceptual-strategic aspect – in addition to the ability to identify new opportunities. Three other additional elements should be included in the new defense concept: prevention/preclusion, regional alliances and the relations with the USA – on which we elaborated previously. 

The new concept was presented at one of the sessions of the 14th Hertzliya Conference held last June

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