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Israel Security Policy

The need for a strong military posture in the face of the perceived Arab threats to Israel's survival has been endorsed with near unanimity by Israeli policy makers and citizens. Nevertheless, the question of which strategies best ensure national defense has often caused acrimonious national, as well as international, controversy. Events subsequent to Ben-Gurion's initial concepts of national security laid down when Israel was founded in 1948, particularly Israel's occupation of Arab territories since the June 1967 War, have modified the foundations for Israel's concepts of national security.

A cornerstone of US assistance to Israel is guaranteeing Israels Qualitative Military Edge (QME). QME pertains to Israel's ability to defend itself by itself against any combination of Mideast adversaries. Helping Israel maintain its qualitative military advantage enhances security by preventing regional conflict and builds the confidence necessary for Israel to take calculated risks for peace. The annual military assistance that Israel receives constitutes an important part of US support for these objectives. Israel uses this assistance both to procure US-origin defense articles, ranging from ammunition to advanced weapons systems and training, and to develop and support its own defense industry. Washington's decades-long, commitment to Israel's QME has been codified into US law.

Israelis traditionally viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict as a struggle for survival, convinced that even one military defeat would mean the end of their country. National defense became the first priority, with proportionately more human and material resources devoted to defense than in any other nation in the world. Israelis regarded major conflicts, such as occurred in 1967 and 1973, as "rounds" or battles in a continuous war. Even when it was not engaged in outright combat with its Arab enemies, Israel remained in what General Yitzhak Rabin, who became minister of defense in 1984, called a "dormant war" that, "like a volcano," could erupt with little warning into a major conflagration.

Another premise was that every Arab country was at least a potential member of a unified pan-Arab coalition that could attack Israel--a concept sometimes referred to by Israeli strategic planners as the "extensive threat." To confront this extensive threat, the IDF aimed to have the capability to defend Israel not only against an attack by a single Arab adversary or an alliance of several Arab states, but also against the combined forces of all Arab countries. Israeli strategists felt that planning for such a worst-case scenario was prudent because Arab states had often rhetorically threatened such a combined attack. The concept of extensive threat also justified requests for greater military aid from the United States and protests against United States military support of moderate Arab states that, from the American perspective, posed no credible threat to Israel's security.

Some Israeli military leaders insisted that, despite the 1978 Camp David Accords, Egypt remained a major potential enemy in any future Arab-Israeli war. Moreover, some Israeli strategists worried about threats from outside the Arab world. In a 1981 speech, then Minister of Defense Sharon stated that "Israel's sphere of strategic and security interests must be broadened in the 1980s" to confront new adversaries in Africa and Asia, and cited Pakistan as one potential threat. Some strategists even envisioned Israeli clashes with Iran and India.

At the other end of the spectrum were those who felt that the concept of extensive threat exaggerated the danger to Israel. Some Israeli strategists argued in the late 1980s that the Arab-Israeli conflict was evolving into a bilateral contest between Israel and Syria to which other Arab actors were becoming peripheral. They considered that the IDF for pragmatic reasons should deploy its limited resources to counter the threat of a cross-border attack by Syria. Speaking in 1987, Minister of Defense Rabin stated that Egypt had placed itself "outside the circle of nations at war with Israel" and that the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel had "significantly altered the Middle East balance of power in Israel's favor."

Demographic and geographic pressures arising from Israel's small size and concentrated population meant that a war fought within Israel would be extremely costly in terms of civilian casualties and damage to the economic infrastructure. Morale and, hence, future immigration would also suffer. It was therefore an ironclad rule of Israeli strategists to transfer military action to enemy territory, and no regular Arab troops have hit on Israeli soil since 1948. Because Israel could never defeat its Arab enemy permanently, no matter how many victories or "rounds" it won on the battlefield, and because in each full-scale war it incurred the risk, however minimal, of combat being conducted on its territory or even a defeat that would destroy the state, Israel's official policy was to avoid all-out war unless attacked. Deterrence therefore became the main pillar of Israel's national security doctrine.

Israel considered an offensive rather than a defensive strategy the best deterrent to Arab attack. Because of the absence until 1967 of the depth of terrain essential for strategic defense, Israel could ensure that military action was conducted on Arab territory only by attacking first. Moreover, Israel feared that a passive defensive strategy would permit the Arabs, secure in the knowledge that Israel would not fight unless attacked, to wage a protracted low-level war of attrition, engage in brinkmanship through incremental escalation, or mobilize for war with impunity. Paradoxically, then, the policy of deterrence dictated that Israel always had to strike first. The Israeli surprise attack could be a "preemptive" attack in the face of an imminent Arab attack, an unprovoked "preventive" attack to deal the Arab armies a setback that would stave off future attack, or a massive retaliation for a minor Arab infraction. Israel justified such attacks by the concept that it was locked in permanent conflict with the Arabs.

The occupation of conquered territories in 1967 greatly increased Israel's strategic depth, and Israeli strategic thinking changed accordingly. Many strategists argued that the IDF could now adopt a defensive posture, absorb a first strike, and then retaliate with a counteroffensive. The October 1973 War illustrated that this thinking was at least partially correct. With the added security buffer of the occupied territories, Israel could absorb a first strike and retaliate successfully.

But when Sharon was appointed minister of defense in 1981, he advocated that Israel revert to the more aggressive pre-1967 strategy. Sharon argued that the increased mechanization and mobility of Arab armies, combined with the increased range of Arab surface-to-surface missile systems (SSMs), nullified the strategic insulation and advanced warning that the occupied territories afforded Israel. Israel, therefore, faced the same threat that it had before 1967 and, incapable of absorbing a first strike, should be willing to launch preventive and preemptive strikes against potential Arab threats. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for which Sharon was substantially responsible, the aggressive national security posture that he advocated waned in popularity. By 1988, however, Iraq's use of SSMs against Iran and Saudi Arabia's acquisition of long-range SSMs from China suggested to some Israeli strategists that the concepts of extensive threat and preemption should again be given more weight.

Israel made clear to the Arabs that certain actions, even if not overtly hostile or aimed at Israel, would trigger an Israeli preemptive attack. Israel announced various potential causes of war. Some causes, such as interference with Israeli freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran, were officially designated as such. In 1982 Sharon listed four actions that would lead to an attack: the attempt by an Arab country to acquire or manufacture an atomic bomb, the militarization of the Sinai Peninsula, the entry of the Iraqi army into Jordan, and the supply of sophisticated United States arms to Jordan. In 1988 the government of Israel continued to communicate potential causes to its Arab adversaries. Their tacit acquiescence in these unilateral Israeli demands constituted a system of unwritten but mutually understood agreements protecting the short-term status quo.

Since the establishment of Israel, the IDF has been obliged to deal with terrorist actions, cross-border raids, and artillery and missile barrages of the various Palestinian organizations under the loose leadership of the PLO. The IDF's approach in contending with PLO activity has combined extreme vigilance with prompt and damaging retaliatory measures, including punishment of Arab nations giving sanctuary to terrorists and guerrillas. The presence of innocent noncombatants was not accepted as a reason for withholding counterstrikes. Although striving to limit harm to uninvolved persons, the Israelis gave priority to the need to demonstrate that acts of terrorism would meet with quick retribution in painful and unpredictable forms.

Israeli strategists believed the periodic outbreak of war to be virtually inevitable and that once war broke out it was essential that it be brief and lead to decisive victory. The requirement of a rapid war followed from at least two factors. During full mobilization, virtually the entire Israeli population was engaged in the defense effort and the peacetime economy ground to a halt. Sustaining full mobilization for more than several weeks would prove disastrous to the economy, and stockpiling sufficient supplies for a long war would be difficult and very costly. Experience from past wars also showed Israel that prolonged hostilities invited superpower intervention. As a result, Israeli strategists stressed the need to create a clear margin of victory before a cease-fire was imposed from the outside. This concept was extended in the 1980s, when Israeli military leaders formulated the strategy of engaging in a "war of annihilation" in the event of a new round of all-out warfare. Israel's goal would be to destroy the Arab armies so completely as to preclude a military threat for ten years. Such a scenario might prove elusive, however, because destroyed equipment could be quickly replaced, and the Arab countries had sufficient manpower to rebuild shattered forces.

Although viewed as its ultimate guarantor of security, the nuclear option did not lead Israel to complacency about national security. On the contrary, it impelled Israel to seek unquestioned superiority in conventional capability over the Arab armies to forestall use of nuclear weapons as a last resort. The IDF sought to leverage its conventional power to the maximum extent. IDF doctrine and tactics stressed quality of weapons versus quantity; integration of the combined firepower of the three branches of the armed forces; effective battlefield command, communications, and real-time intelligence; use of precision-guided munitions and stand-off firepower; and high mobility.

Iran has long been involved in the sponsoring and support of worldwide terror groups and has been officially implicated for its involvement in terrorist activities in several Western states. It provides aid in the form of weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iraq-based militants, and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 17 February 2010 : "We are threatened by an extremist form of Islam, headed by Tehran, which sends out its tentacles in the form of Hamas and Hizbullah and other terrorist organizations, which undermine the very existence of the State of Israel and speak openly about their desire to destroy it. This is not just a threat against Israel, but against the entire world..."

Iran's behavior suggests that it is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program. While denying these allegations, Iran's behavior led to its being sanctioned by various international bodies, including the IAEA and the UN Security Council. Iran has pursued all stages of developing nuclear weapons, including mining uranium, converting uranium to uranium hexafluoride, enriching uranium hexafluoride to obtain high-grade fissile material necessary for military use, and developing an implosion system needed for the detonation of nuclear devices. All this despite Iran's commitment to and ratification of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In addition, Iran has developed weapons systems - primarily medium- and long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads to countries in the Middle East, Europe and eventually North America.

IDF rules of engagement in responses to the "Knife Intifada" in 2016 required the use of the minimum force necessary to neutralize a threat. The debate over the use of deadly force and the armys rules of engagement, opened a long-running rift among Israelis over the role of the military in Israeli life. " ... an increasingly conservative political leadership has pointed with growing alarm to what they see as military leaders overstepping their boundaries and interfering in civilian affairs. Military leaders accuse the political echelon of making policy decisions that undermine Israels security in both the short and long range, driven by thinly veiled ideological and religious considerations wrapped in security arguments that are poorly thought-out and often ignorant. Politicians and public intellectuals, mostly but not only on the right, say the generals outspokenness undermines the democratic principle of elected civilians making policy. The debate is filled with ironies. For one, it upends the usual Western pattern of armies staking out the right flank in most national debates. In Israel, especially given the paralysis of the political left, the security establishment has emerged as one of the main voices on the left flank of national discourse... "




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