Which type of war should Israel prepare for: Full-scale war against state armies, or a continued series of limited wars where the home front is the main target? Each of these two types of conflict requires a different force-building strategy and different economic investments.
Israel’s national security doctrine was shaped by the wars of the first two decades of its existence, especially the War of Independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967. In both wars, the declared objective of the Arab side was to end the existence of the State of Israel by defeating its army and occupying its territory. Hence the consolidation of a security doctrine based on the assumption that an “existential threat,” that is, a threat to the continued existence of the state, means a military defeat in a large-scale war against enemy-state armies. From this assumption are derived the force buildup, operations concept, and the IDF strategy which sets as its goal the rapid defeat of the enemy’s military force in every campaign. This security doctrine still prevails today, with minor updates.
On the other hand, the hostile actors that continuously aspire to abolish the State of Israel have embraced a different strategy since the early 1970s, based on what can be termed the “withering away” theory, which holds that the key to achieving their goal is to attack the Israeli population, defeat its determination and ultimately drive it overseas. In retrospect, since 1982, all of Israel’s wars, including the “campaigns between the wars,” have in fact conformed to this strategy, clearly formulated by Hassan Nasrallah in 2000 and Ali Khamenei in 2015.
Until recently, those actors did not possess weapons that enabled them to implement the “withering away” theory. This has changed with the appearance of precision rockets and missiles in the orders of battle of hostile organizations and states. These weapons provide them with capabilities like those of a modern air force to damage and paralyze Israel’s economic infrastructure, thus threatening to erode Israel’s resilience in an unprecedented way.
The threat incorporated in the erosion of this resilience constitutes a new “existential threat” which finds no response in the current national security doctrine. The resources required to counter the new “existential threat” are likely to compete with those required to cope with the “traditional threat”. The issue is even more complex when one considers the possibility that after the civil war in Syria ends and the re-organization of Iraq as a satellite state of Iran, a powerful Eastern Front might be re-emerge.
Israel’s security dilemma is to decide which of the two kinds of “Existential Threat” is more likely and hence what kind of war to prepare for. This paper aims to shed light on this dilemma rather than solving it, as this conundrum has no simple solution. It is to be hoped that the defense leadership will make the right choice.
The origins of Israel’s national security doctrine
The State of Israel was born out of war and into war. The Zionist project that began at the start of the 20th century encountered (as predicted by some of the forefathers of Zionism) violent resistance on the part of the Arab population in the country, which increased as the project took root. The Jewish Yishuv, which was granted limited protection by the British Mandate authorities, was forced to establish its own military force, which constituted the IDF nucleus after the establishment of the State.
This pre-State unofficial military force conducted what is now called a limited campaign against irregular forces of the Arab population, which occasionally erupted in riots. Towards the declaration of the state (May 1948), the war transitioned into a classic, high-intensity war, waged on land, air, and sea against the regular armies of the neighboring countries that crossed the borders of the former British Mandate with the declared intention of turning back the wheel and ending the existence of the nascent state of Israel.
Although Israel survived the test of the War of Independence, it failed to compel the Arab states to recognize its right to exist and thus found itself in a state of perpetual war against its neighbors and in hostile relations with the Arab population that departed during the War of Independence and settled in these neighboring countries. In this state of perpetual war, periods of relative calm were interspaced by outbreaks of terrorist attacks against the Israeli home front (such as the Fedayeen attacks in the 1950s) and by high-intensity military campaigns: the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and to a certain extent also the 1982 Lebanon War. In all these situations, Israel’s entire military force was fully exercised, on land, air, and sea, with the aim of defeating the regular armies confronting it, thereby eliminating the potential threat to the very existence of the state – termed the “existential threat.”
While the outbreaks of fighting in these periods also included lower-intensity campaigns, such as the PLO’s guerrilla and urban terror campaigns, which began shortly before the outbreak of the 1967 War, Israel’s security doctrine formulated at the time by David Ben-Gurion, was predicated on the assumption that the strategy of Israel’s foes in striving to abolish Israel’s existence aimed to achieve a total defeat of the IDF and to capture its entire territory. Ben-Gurion predicted that this state of perpetual war would have its ups and downs, and periods of relative calm would be accompanied by outbreaks of war whenever the other side felt that it had a reasonable chance of achieving a military victory.
Based on this, the IDF had to be built in such a way that the cost to the national economy remained affordable, yet its power would be sufficient to decisively defeat any hostile military force waged against it in every round of combat.
The organization, force build-up, and the IDF’s doctrine on the use of force all stemmed from these points of origin. The organization relied on a large reserve army called for service only in times of emergency; the force structure was based on powerful combat platforms (armored fighting vehicles and fighter aircraft) and the use of force doctrine favored fighting at the highest degree of intensity as possible. The required objectives were: first, a clear-cut military victory, and second, the shortening of the duration of the campaign – an aspiration well-expressed by Haim Bar-Lev before the 1967 War; to win a “swift, decisive and elegant” victory.
Strategies are formulated based on a series of assumptions, some explicit and some implicit, “self-evident” truths that need no proof. One implicit, but most important assumption, in Israel’s classical security doctrine is that Israel’s existence can be terminated only through a military defeat and territorial occupation. (Later, a less implicit assumption was added, referring to the same outcome being reached with nuclear weapons).
The consequence of this implicit assumption is that any lesser threat – one that will not amount to the threat of territorial occupation or a nuclear demise – merely constitutes a nuisance and distraction from the existential threat, and therefore does not deserve much attention or the allocation of resources. A further implicit assumption was that since the enemy’s strategy is to defeat the IDF, it is at war with the IDF and not with Israel’s civilian home front. Therefore, the main battleground is between the military forces, while the civilian home front is merely required to support the fighting and absorb any offensive attacks that accompany high-intensity combat (such as aerial bombardment, as was the case in the War of Independence).
Because of these assumptions, every effort to protect the home front is perceived as a deviation from the principle of force-concentration to achieve military decision and a diversion of resources to secondary objectives. The strong opposition of the IDF’s senior command to invest resources in missile defense systems, and its initial opposition to the establishment of the Home Front Command, are prominent examples of this perception.
During the seventy years that elapsed since the establishment of the state, the IDF has been required to conduct many lesser intensity operations. The occupation of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip compelled the IDF to conduct ongoing, continuous policing operations against a hostile Palestinian population. The emergence of hostile non-state armies in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip led to a series of limited wars in which the IDF was unable to fully express its military power – built for war against powerful state armies – due to restrictions that were partly political. In fact, the IDF has not confronted any state army since the 1982 Lebanon War and has been engaged for the past 35 years in so-called “routine security” – in policing actions and a series of limited wars in which the IDF focused primarily on defense, on minimizing damages, and on protecting the civilian home front.
Despite all this, the essentials of Israel’s military strategy have not changed, only its formulation. The IDF’s military strategy document published in 2015 states that the IDF’s goal in war is “to use offensive force to achieve clear military results.” Although the term “decision” has been replaced by the term “clear military results,” this appears to be nothing more than a play on words. Despite that fact that the IDF has been implementing in practice an active defense strategy since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, it still considers its primary objective to be the conducting of an offensive war to achieve a rapid and decisive military victory which entails the destruction of the opposing military force. The basic assumption – that the existential threat only refers to the threat of territorial occupation or a nuclear demise – remains in force, as does the reference to any other threat as a nuisance and distraction from the main issue.
On the nature of the “existential threat”
The basic assumption still underlying the IDF’s strategy requires examination. If we momentarily set aside the nuclear threat, one must ask: Is the only way for the enemy to existentially threaten Israel to crush the IDF in battle and to occupy Israel’s territory, as in a “hard kill”?
To address this question, the terms “existence” and “existential threat” need to be defined. For the purposes of this paper, “existence” to is the existence of the State of Israel as a sovereign political entity constituting the nation-state of the Jewish people, and recognized as such by the international community. From this definition it is possible to extract a definition of a “soft kill,” namely the eradication of Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people without terminating its political existence.
The question of Israel’s national identity is however a political, not a military issue and therefore out of the scope of this paper. The question is whether it is possible to obliterate Israel’s political existence using military means other than the defeat of the IDF and the physical occupation of the state’s territory.
In recent history there have been at least two cases in which political entities were eliminated not by an external occupation but by internal collapse: the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia. In both cases, the state entities ceased to exist because of ideological and economic crises, social tensions, and internal national conflicts within each state. Without being defeated and physically occupied, both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia ceased to exist and were replaced by a series of “successor states.”
Is it possible to perceive a similar fate for Israel? From the viewpoint of those entities that deny Israel’s very right to exist, the answer seems positive. The most prominent example of this is the boycott movement against Israel (BDS), which advocates “ending the occupation,” granting equal rights to the Arab citizens of Israel, and the return of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants – altogether 7.25 million persons – to their former homes. Any sensible person understands that the third demand means the return to Israel’s pre-state status – namely, its abolishment and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its stead. The BDS movement’s strategy is to annul the international recognition of Israel’s right to exist, thereby bringing about its collapse and the establishing a new “successor state” – a “soft kill” in every respect. However, since this strategy does not call (at least explicitly) for the use of force, it too will not be discussed further in this paper.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, which is even more extreme in its denying Israel’s right to exist, prefers – at least according to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s statements – what might be called a “semi-hard kill,” which combines military and political measures. In a collection of sermons in support of the Palestinians, published in Iran, the Iranian leader explains the reasons why Israel should cease to exist, and how to bring this about. Khamenei is careful to stress that his goal of destroying the State of Israel does not stem from anti-Semitism, “which is a European invention,” nor will it be achieved by a “classic” war and genocide. Rather, according to Khamenei, Israel will be destroyed through prolonged, low-intensity warfare that will make the lives of the Jewish citizens of the country unbearable and encourage them “to return to their countries of origin.”
Khamenei adds that with the departure of most of the country’s Jews (leaving behind only those Jews with “Middle Eastern roots”), the State of Israel will cease functioning and its central government will melt away. The UN shall assume temporary control over the entire territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Under UN control, elections will take place, allowing participation by all Jews remaining in the country and all Palestinians in the world, wherever their place of residence. Following these elections, a new state will be established. The name of the new state will be “Palestine.”
Khamenei’s vision is based on a very different perception of reality than the self-perception of most of the Israeli public. While Israelis sees themselves as a coherent nation established in its permanent homeland, Iran and its regional allies regard Israeli society as a conflict-ridden, unconsolidated assemblage of immigrant groups, lacking determination or readiness to sacrifice for its continued existence. This perception is familiar to most Israelis from Hassan Nasrallah’s so-called “spiderweb” speech of May 2000, in which he called upon the Palestinians “to force the Zionist invaders to return to the places whence they came.” In this speech he addresses the Palestinians and explains:
“… To free your land, you do not need tanks, a strategic balance, rockets and cannons; you must follow the path of the martyrs and of self-sacrifice that will shock the oppressive Zionist entity. You, the oppressed, unarmed, and restricted Palestinians, can force and coerce the Zionist invaders to return to the places whence they came. Make the Falasha return to Ethiopia and the Russian Jews return to Russia. The choice is yours; the model lies right before your eyes. An honest and sincere resistance can reawaken the dawn and the freedom. Our beloved Palestinian brothers, I say to you: this Israel, which possesses nuclear weapons and the strongest fighter aircraft in the region, is weaker than a spiderweb.”
Thus, the realization of the “existential threat” according to Khamenei’s doctrine is not the defeat of the IDF and the conquest of the territory of the state, but to quash the resilience of the Israeli public by means of endless rounds of limited violence – that is, a “killing” model that combines a “hard kill” and “soft kill.” In hindsight, the bursts of limited wars in the past decade, from the 2006 Second Lebanon War to “Protective Edge” in 2014, coincide – intentionally or not – with Khamenei’s “semi-hard kill” strategy. In that case, it can be expected that these rounds of limited wars will continue in the foreseeable future and that Israel’s military and political strategy should adapt itself to this reality.
The Algerian model
Is Khamenei’s vision realistic? Most of Israel’s present-day citizens were born in Israel or arrived after the era of Israel’s formative wars, especially the War of Independence and the 1967 War. These citizens perceive Israel’s existence as permanent, and its continuity as unquestionable. Older Israelis did experience a sense of uncertainty about the state’s very establishment and its continued existence – during the period of struggle prior to establishment of the state, as well as an existential anxiety on the eve of the 1967 War – yet their numbers are dwindling.
For most Israelis, Khamenei’s formula is a delusion that does not endanger the very existence of Israel – a periodic nuisance, but not an “existential threat.” For older Israelis – this author among them – Israel’s continued existence is not something to be taken for granted, but rather something to be fought for, time and again.
Nevertheless, it seems that the sense of the public, as reflected in the media, is that Israel’s continued existence is assured and that Khamenei’s formula boils down to a series of non-existential, nuisance campaigns that come and go like some natural phenomena.
In fact, the model of “semi-hard killing” was first formulated in the 1960s by Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), under the name of the “withering away” doctrine. This theory was based on the Algerian War of Independence, allegedly proving that a relentless terrorist campaign can defeat the determination of a foreign “settler” community and drive it back to its country of origin.
It is easy to show how fundamentally different the Israeli case is from the Algerian model. Yet we cannot predict the cumulative outcome of an endless series of attacks against the Israeli home front – a situation for which it would be hard even to find a historical precedent: This is due to the lack of alternative for Israelis, in comparison to that of French settlers in Algeria, and above all the military technological revolution that now provides non-state organizations with missiles and rockets of unprecedented ranges, accuracy, and lethality against the civilian home front.
While in the past, the “toolbox” of non-state organizations such as the IRA and the Sri-Lankan “Tamil Tigers” were limited to commando raids and urban terrorism, the modern “toolbox” available to such non state organizations now include pinpoint precision rockets and ballistic missiles, as well as unmanned surveillance means for the location and destruction-verification of targets – capabilities that far outclass the limited capability of “Katyusha” rockets and are on par with frontline capabilities of modern state armies. These capabilities were demonstrated for all to see in June 2017, when Iranian Zulfikar precision-guided rockets carrying warheads weighing over half-a-ton hit point targets at ranges of more than 600 kilometers, destroying ISIS installations in the city of a-Raqqa, while Iranian drones flew overhead to register the hits. It is likely that Hezbollah has, or will have soon, weapons of this sort.
The impact of such powerful weapons against national infrastructure and population centers in affluent western countries with a complex economy and dense, sophisticated (and thus vulnerable) national infrastructure like Israel in the Middle East or South Korea in East Asia has not yet been put to the test. Moreover, the use of standoff weapons (missiles and rockets) gives non-state actors the last word on the duration of wars. The state under attack has no real ability to stop the rocket and missile fire on its population by occupying territory near the border because the aggressor can withdraw and launch its rockets and missiles from dozens and hundreds of kilometers away.
This means that the aggressor has the monopoly on the duration of limited wars, and that the defender has no real ability to curtail this duration by “classic” military means of maneuver warfare. In other words, it seems that in limited campaigns against non-state armies it is not possible to reach a “decision” in every round in the sense that Ben-Gurion referred to in the formulation of his national security doctrine. This is illustrated by the fact that in all of Israel’s limited wars from the 2006 Lebanon war to the 2014 third Gaza war, the fighting ended by diplomacy, with the hostile non-state actors badly beaten but still standing on their legs. We argue here that the fundamental reason for this outcome was not Israel’s military shortcomings (which were plenty and certainly played a part) but the very nature of this kind of asymmetric confrontation.
A new kind of “existential threat”
The limited campaigns of the past decade, all of which featured standoff weapon attacks against Israeli population centers, have generally shown a fairly high level of civilian resilience, expressed in the readiness to suffer casualties, damage, and the disruption of their daily lives, and in the rapid recovery at the end of each campaign.
On the other hand, these campaigns did not significantly impair the national economy beyond local damages, the cost of which was quickly paid by the state. There is no certainty that this will be the case in the future: the lethality and accuracy of current Hezbollah (and perhaps also Hamas’) rockets and missiles could wreak havoc on national infrastructures such as the electricity grid, the water system and land, sea and air transportation systems, which could cause significant and long-term damage to the national economy. Experience has shown that the main motive for emigration from Israel is not the security situation but the economic situation. Israel’s burgeoning economy, which greatly enhances its wealth and stature, is also a source of vulnerability to disruption of its infrastructure. This is well known to Israel’s foes. Thus, their expectation that economic decline due to the continued rounds of limited campaigns would lead to the collapse of national resilience and significant emigration from Israel is not unreasonable, at least from their point of view.
Since we have no way to predict with any degree of accuracy the long-term effects of endlessly repeating limited wars on the national economy and the impact of these effects on national resilience, the worst-case scenario in this respect is a series of nuisance campaigns against Israel’s population using advanced, deadly standoff weapons, which could pose an “existential threat” by itself, with all that this implies.
This scenario greatly differs from the assumptions underlying Ben-Gurion’s thinking, and, if we accept this as a basis for planning, it necessitates a fundamental revision of Israel’s security doctrine. If the “existential threat” is not the defeat of the IDF and the occupation of the state’s territory, but the toppling of the national economy and driving the Israelis away – this would require a different set of measures both in military force structure and in the preparation of the home front.
The IDF’s current force structure continues to emphasize military decision by offensive warfare using main fighting platforms and the optimization of power by computerized central control. The organization, the weapons and the technologies used by the IDF grant it tremendous power against “classic” state armies and decision capabilities in major wars. However, it is not clear that the organization, force build-up and technologies are equally effective against non-state armed forces, structured as decentralized “super-guerilla” organizations, based on local independent command yet equipped with top of the line, modern arms.
The main difference in preparation for an “existential threat” that is not the defeat of the IDF but the defeat of the national economy, is in the required outcome. What is needed is not a classic military “decision” of a state army, but rather withstanding limited campaigns while minimizing damage and losses among the home population. This outcome requires a change in force build-up and allocation of resources, including the most significant investment in the survivability of the national infrastructure against missile attacks.
This survivability requires not only active defense, but also – and perhaps mostly – the protection of national infrastructure and creation of redundancies in critical assets. Some of these implications are already visible, such as the significant expenditure on new warships to protect the natural gas extraction facilities in the Mediterranean. Another example is the dilemma of relocating the giant used by the chemical industries in Haifa Bay, the main motive being the risk of a mass disaster due to a rocket attack from Lebanon. The dire economic and social costs of this dilemma are already evident. It is probable that the significant investments in the protection and survivability of national infrastructure will come at the expense of other economic, social and security needs, including the IDF’s offensive capability.
Israel’s security dilemma
At this time, it is not at all clear which of the two “existential threat” models is more likely. The accepted wisdom today (at least in the media) is that in the foreseeable future, Israel is not under any real threat from state armies. The Eastern Front collapsed after the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, and even more so by the disintegration of the Syrian state in the civil war that erupted in 2011. The closest significant hostile state army is the Iran’s the bulk of which is now deployed more than 1,000 kilometers away from Israel’s border.
On one hand, there is no viable “classic” existential threat now from a powerful state army. On the other hand, it remains to be seen how long this situation will hold. Despite expectations that the Syrian regime was about to topple, it did survive to this day with an organized, though battered, state army. This army is presently being reorganizing and re-equipping itself with heavy weapons under Russian auspices. Iraq, which crumbled after the US withdrawal from its territory in 2011, is now becoming an Iranian satellite, and the possibility that it will re-establish a significant state army in the not-so-distant future is not far-fetched. The civil war in Syria now seems to be drawing to a close, parallel to the approaching demise of ISIS and takeover of most of the country by the Shiite central government in Baghdad. One must not exclude the possibility that over the next decade, powerful state armies will be re-established in Syria and Iraq, this time under the auspices and leadership of Iran, resurrecting a powerful Eastern Front.
Khamenei’s “semi-hard kill” formula was concocted at a time when Israel seemed militarily invulnerable. Perhaps the establishment of a new Iranian led, powerful Eastern Front will bring back the “hard kill” strategy to the fore, replacing the “existential threat” of defeating Israel’s economy and resilience with the “existential threat” of defeating the IDF and occupying Israel’s territory.
The dilemma before Israel is to decide which “existential threat” it should prepare for. Should it prepare for a full-scale war against state armies and a resurgent Eastern Front that might be established over the next decade, or for a continued series of limited wars where the home front will be the main target of the powerful non-state armies in Lebanon and Gaza?
As argued above, each of these two threats requires a different strategy and different economic investments. Three different approaches come to mind in addressing this dilemma: the comprehensive approach (“both”), the compromise approach, and the singular approach.
The comprehensive approach entails investing the full resources required both to secure the homeland against powerful onslaught in limited campaigns, as well as investing the full resources needed to sustain and develop the IDF’s offensive capability to achieve a decisive victory over powerful state armies.
This approach does not seem practical under the existing conditions. Despite protests heard from time to time that “Israel is an army that has a state” (especially during the period of budget discussions), the State of Israel has been allocating a declining share of its GDP to defense and an increasing share towards civilian infrastructure and civilian welfare, and there seems to be broad national consensus on this. Therefore, as the comprehensive approach would presumably necessitate the increase of expenditures on defense at the expense of other national goals – practically speaking, a long-term war economy – this approach is unlikely to win public support.
The compromise approach entails sharing the current defense portion of the national budget between military offensive and homeland defensive expenditures. As with any compromise, this approach has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that this is a realistic approach in terms of garnering public support, while its disadvantage is its unsatisfactory solution both pertaining to the offensive capability and to the home front resilience against attack.
The singular approach is basically an “either-or” gamble. It means either to invest in war winning military force against a looming Eastern Front at the price of homeland vulnerability, or to invest in homeland resilience against powerful non-state armed forces while capping the war winning capability against state armies. The huge risk entailed in this approach speaks for itself and needs no elaboration.
It must be pointed out the recently published IDF strategy makes it clear that Israel’s high command prefers the singular approach, and bets on preparing for full scale wars against state armies for national survival (although the phrasing of the strategy document is couched in more general terms that recognize the need to prevail in limited wars). This should not be surprising, since it would be almost unnatural for any armed force to choose otherwise. The responsibility to make the right choice, however, does not reside with the military but with the political leadership.
The dilemma of “what kind of war to prepare for” is not unique to Israel and is currently faced by other military establishments, especially the US army, whose force structure is predicated on the assumption of a “classic” war and the military decision by state armies, even though it still needs to wage wars against guerrilla organizations, as currently in Afghanistan.
The approaches by other states and armies are not necessarily applicable to Israel due to the substantial differences in geography and resources. As a state with limited resources and a small area, Israel lacks the flexibility enjoyed by world powers. The dilemma faced by Israel has no simple solution neither does this article purport to provide one. The political leadership of Israel is required to gamble on the correct solution to the security dilemma according to its best judgment.
Israelis are largely unaware that such a dilemma exists. The purpose of the present paper is to present and clarify this dilemma for the edification of the public. It remains to be seen whether the choice made by Israel’s leaders will be a measured and balanced one, ensuring the existence and integrity of the State of Israel in the face of current and future threats.
This article was originally published (with references) by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem, Israel, on October 31, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission.