Following Israel’s legislative elections in March 2015, US officials warned Tel Aviv not to backtrack from its commitment to the two-state solution, for if it did, the Obama administration would not cast a veto against attempts in the UN to create a Palestinian state unilaterally. Israeli strategic thinking is still mired in military strength-versus-strength concepts in a stable-state-actor environment. Even when Israel confronted with strength-versus-weakness situations within today’s long-term perspective, Israeli strategic thinking needs to be redefined. It is presently characterized by its delusional short-term strategic security doctrine, which apparently advocates security-first peace policy. Israeli thinking is thus reactive, lacking a long-term strategic mind-set necessary to implement an actionable vision for the future, thereby coping with the new exigencies of geopolitical realities.
Israel’s national security doctrine has been marked by both continuity and change over the state’s lifetime. On the one hand, Israel has remained steadily committed to concepts like deterrence through the promise of massive retaliation, short wars on Arab territory, qualitative superiority as well as maximum feasible self-reliance in personnel and arms, and securing the active support of a great power – the United States. But, on the other hand, Israel’s national security doctrine has also undergone evolutionary changes over the decades.
Although Israel has always expressed a willingness to trade land for peace, control of territory has become a steadily less valuable national security asset in recent decades, especially as the costs of low-intensity conflict and the spectre of weapons of mass destruction warfare have grown apace. To a greater extent than ever before, therefore, Israel now seeks to achieve strategic depth and defensible borders through offensive tactics, exclusively via its unjust occupation and annexation of the West Bank.
Israel Defense Forces & Security
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From an organizational perspective, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is by far the most influential body in Israel’s security decision-making process. Additionally, most positions in the broader security apparatus are filled by former military officers. From a cultural perspective, the tactics-oriented approach of the IDF pervades the security apparatus, which explains Israel’s tendency to exclude non-military matters from its strategic thinking. Likewise, from a bureaucratic perspective, the National Security Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other branches are still relatively weak and lack the skills to effectively participate in the security discourse. Other than the military, then, almost no organization provides influential analysis and expert opinion to political decision makers.
Over the past generation, considerable investment has been made in the doctrine and armament of the IDF to improve its effectiveness over Israel’s adversaries. Nevertheless, the indecisive results of four military engagements in the past eight years show that the Israeli security establishment as a whole is becoming less effective in achieving its national security goals. This is compounded by ill-defined goals that are increasingly vague and less thoroughly discussed.
Despite tactical and sometimes even operational investments, Israeli superiority is eroding because of the proliferation of advanced military capabilities among state and non-state actors confronting Israel. Additionally, most of Israel’s adversaries have adapted in ways that allow them to avoid contending with the IDF’s strengths. This challenge is exacerbated by increasing domestic and international constraints on the IDF’s use of force. Consequently, Israel’s freedom of action and its range of usable military options are narrowing. The IDF’s expectation of tactical overmatch against its potential adversaries has thus shifted to a situation, in which an enemy’s asymmetric capabilities often make it a “near peer” in several areas, mostly based on standoff weapons and propaganda warfare.
This situation is bitter proof once again of the validity of Israel’s traditional security doctrine, that requires those in charge to apply force – the IDF – to provide defence together with reaching a decision as rapidly as possible against any type of war that may be waged against the State of Israel. True, the methods of action are different and the restrictions are more serious, such as fighting in a civilian area full of media and everything that results from this. But the necessity of having the IDF able to bring about a military decision in every type of war remains as valid as ever. The fundamental distinctions between preventive and pre-emptive war are those of timing and urgency. A preventive war is undertaken to impede a potential long-range military threat from developing into an actual, immediate military threat. A pre-emptive war is undertaken to counteract an actual and immediate military threat.
Parsing Defensibility—An Israel-US Paradigm
Despite being based on a lie, and despite obscuring a clear ideological agenda, the “indefensible borders” argument resonates deeply among those who care about Israel—both in Israel and in the United States. It resonates because Israelis and their supporters care deeply about Israel’s security, for very good reasons, given Israel’s history. Opponents of a realistic peace agreement are well aware of this and therefore engage in fear mongering to make their case.
They typically refer to a range of threats, including: The threat of Arab armies invading Israel by land through the Jordan Valley across the West Bank; the threat of Arab armies attacking Israel from the skies taking advantage of West Bank airspace; and the threat of terrorists (by which is meant Palestinians and others) using the West Bank high ground as a launching pad for attacks on Israeli cities, infrastructure, military installations, and airport.
However, even if such changes were to occur, or if under some other circumstances foreign armies were to try to invade through the West Bank, the threat posed to Israel would still be low. The Jordan Valley is an excellent natural barrier, almost insurmountable for invading armies with tanks and mechanized infantry, regardless of whether or not the Israeli army is actually present in the West Bank. As Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld observes: “The ascent from the Jordan Valley into the heights of Judea and Samaria is topographically one of the most difficult on earth,” and would be easily thwarted by Israel.
Yinon-Yaalon Plan & Israeli Quest for Strategic Depth?
The 1982 Oded Yinon Plan and Moshe Ya’alon’s present-day strategy illustrate how the ethno-sectarian fragmentation and internecine warfare between Shiites and Sunnis is in line with plans to enhance Israel’s security and was ignited by the neocon-inspired US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Netanyahu and the neocons currently view Iran as a greater threat in the Middle East than ISIS, and while they advocate US military intervention, they emphasize that such intervention should not empower Iran, notes Stephen Sniegoski, an American historian.
David Ignatius observes in the Washington Post: “Let’s look at the reality on the ground in the Middle East: Iraq and Syria are effectively partitioned along sectarian lines; Lebanon and Yemen are close to fracturing; Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia survive intact but as increasingly authoritarian states.
“In the current, chaotic moment, we see two post-imperial systems collapsing at once: The state boundaries drawn by the Versailles Treaty in 1919 to replace the Ottoman Empire can’t hold the fractious peoples together. And a U.S.-led system that kept the region in a rough balance has been shattered by America’s failed intervention in Iraq.”
Israel cannot have and will not be able to have conventional, territorial “strategic depth.” As Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion once said: “There are geo-political facts that cannot be ignored. Our land is small and there is no difference whether it lies on both sides of the Jordan River or only west of it. Even if we had the ideal borders, ours would have remained a small country in comparison to the vast [Arab] expanse… this is an ironclad historical fact.”
What is indefensible is an occupation that has been going on for forty-four years. What is indefensible is continuing this occupation in perpetuity. Indefensible is constructing settlements on land that must soon become the future Palestinian state. Indefensible is dismissing a peace plan endorsed by the Arab League, which promises full normalisation with all twenty-two Arab states. Indefensible is denying Israelis the peace that they yearn for and deserve, and continuing to deny them a respectable place among the family of nations.