Israel's Evolving Security Concept / Meron Medzini

This article examines the evolution of Israel's defense doctrine, its constants and variables, what constitutes Israel's security, and how Israel has dealt with the threats to its existence.

In 1974, a year after the Yom Kippur War, Israel gave Washington a list of requests for weapons to replace equipment lost or damaged in that war. It contained thousands of items, including airplanes, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. In response, the United States dispatched a senior Pentagon official to Israel. He met in Jerusalem with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres.

The official asked why the Israeli list was so extensive, whether Israel had the means to maintain all of this equipment (including the necessary pilots and tank crews), and whether the entire country would become one huge maintenance base. Rabin became angry and retorted, "Look, this is what we think we need. If something goes wrong we pay the price and not you."[1] This factor has been accepted by U.S. as well as Israeli policymakers regarding arms sales.

From the late 1960s to the present day, virtually every U.S. president has confirmed publicly his commitment to Israel's security, though none ever specified exactly what that meant. Since taking office in 2009, the Obama administration has agreed that Israel would be the one to determine its security needs.

Since Israel’s creation in 1948, the same core issues have characterized Israel-U.S. relations: What are Israel's security needs; what factors comprise Israel's security; and who determines them?

There is a well-known phrase in international relations: "When two countries see eye to eye on everything, one of them is in trouble." Since Israel and the United States do not see eye to eye on everything, Israeli statecraft has sought to reduce the differences that have often flared into open tensions and disputes. On occasion, the United States has responded to Israel's security needs either by denying Israel weapons (the 1975 Ford Administration Reassessment Policy following the initial failure of negotiations for an Israel-Egypt Interim Agreement) or promising weapons to Israel (the Nixon administration’s offer in June 1970 in order to persuade Israel to accept a ceasefire ending the War of Attrition; the Obama administration’s offer of weapons in order to convince Israel to extend the settlement freeze by 90 days in November 2010).[2]

Since 1948, Israel's defense doctrine has undergone many changes, but certain harsh realities remain. This article examines the evolution of Israel's defense doctrine, its constants and variables, what constitutes Israel's security, and how Israel has dealt with the threats to its existence. National security is defined as ensuring the nation's existence and ensuring its capability to defend its vital interests and to fulfill its national goals. In the case of Israel, this also means the defense of the country’s continued existence as a free, sovereign, independent Jewish democratic state, enhancing the country's ability to cope with all possible threats to its existence and national interests.[3]


Many features of Israel's geostrategic situation have not changed much since 1948. First and foremost is the attempt to delegitimize its right to exist as a sovereign, independent Jewish state. This attitude applies not only to Israel’s immediate neighbors but also to around two-thirds of the 192 UN member states.

Few question the legitimacy of the Jordanian or the Lebanese states, overlooking the manner in which they became independent. Few ask how Bangladesh came into being. The idea that the Jewish people deserve a state of their own has not yet been accepted, even by non-Muslim nations, and lies at the core of the Arab refusal to come to terms with Israel. Israel is the only liberal heterogeneous democratic state in the Middle East. Israel’s leaders are also convinced that if it disappears, so will the Jewish people.

The second permanent feature of Israel is its geography--a long, narrow country devoid of any strategic depth and with a relatively small population that cannot absorb a vast number of losses. The entire country, including the coastal strip, where most of the population is concentrated and where its key infrastructure is located, is within artillery and rocket range of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Lebanon.

The response to this situation was the doctrine calling for swift military action to prevent or preempt an immediate threat and to move the fighting onto enemy territory. The Arab countries will always have a vast margin of demographic superiority over Israel. If one were to include second-line Arab states as well, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, or Iran, the ratio would be 1:20. The same applies to the size of its territory.

Furthermore, Israel was never part of any regional or international bloc, let alone defense pact. In the United Nations, it confronts an automatic majority whose core are the 56 members of the Islamic bloc. Israel's attempts to seek a formal or even semi-formal relationship with NATO failed, although there are joint exercises and intelligence-sharing. There is no Israel-U.S. defense pact in spite of various American military commitments to Israel. However, unlike a situation when an attack on any NATO member is seen as an attack on the United States, an attack on Israel is not in that category. Although Israel is an associate member of the European Economic Community, it is not a part of the European Union.

The time element is a permanent key feature in Israel's strategic thinking. In any armed conflict, Israel must seek a quick and--if possible--decisive military achievement before the international community will act against it by imposing economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, or an arms embargo.

Israel knows it cannot win total victory and cannot fight a long war, because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is made up mainly of reserve soldiers whose prolonged absence could undermine Israel’s economy. Israel cannot afford to lose a war, whereas its enemies have the space, population, and time to absorb a series of defeats. Israelis always remember the chilling answer its founding father David Ben-Gurion gave when asked when Israel would fight its last war--"the one that we lose," he said. In other words, Israel has no "second chance."[4]

Israel is devoid of natural resources and must import raw materials, grains, and oil (although the discovery of gas offshore may change some of its energy dependence on foreign sources). Israel depends on freedom of navigation to ensure the import of raw materials that are reprocessed in Israel and then exported as finished goods abroad.

Another factor Israel has to consider is the type of weapons and tactics it can utilize in the wars it fights. Unlike some of the means employed by the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan, or by Russia in Chechnya, Israel is bound by certain standards of morality and cannot act as a superpower. International law, the Geneva Conventions, and other pacts seem to be applied to Israel much more than to other nations as was seen following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008 and the Goldstone Report that followed. In both the First and Second Wars in Lebanon, in the summer of 1982 and 2006, Israel refrained from destroying civilian strategic infrastructure facilities in Beirut such as power and water plants, the port, and airport.


Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, many factors have affected the country's security thinking and doctrine. First, was the changing make-up of the Arab coalition against Israel. In 1948, Israel was attacked by...



*Prof. Meron Medzini is a visiting professor of political science at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel. An updated version of his Golda: A Political Biography was published in Tel Aviv in 2009.

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