The Making of Israeli Strategy: Survivalists in the Desert

Since the founding of Israel via a long war in 1948-1949, strategy, politics and war have been focused on one single goal: the survival of the Jewish state in the midst of an extremely hostile environment. When analyzing Israeli strategy, even more than geography, this is the primary consideration of Israeli planning and is clearly driven by the memory of the Jewish Holocaust and the constant threat of annihilation by their Arab neighbors.

Unlike ALL of the case studies we have reviewed, Israel’s opponents could literally wipe them off the map. This simple fact has been a pretty good focusing factor in the Israeli military leadership and politicians and has allowed the Israelis to make strategic and military decisions that many other countries would shrink away from. 

As the essay by Handel points out, the Israelis have been remarkably consistent in their strategic thought for the period he studies from 1948 to roughly after the Gulf War. The simple fact of geography, both in terms of the length of border to be defended and the lack of strategic depth of Israel proper has driven Israel to a strategic and tactically offensive posture in any potential conflict.

Because the Israelis have been, and will be, heavily outnumbered by their likely adversaries, the basic doctrine of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is to strike first, strike hard and quickly defeat their opponents before the preponderance of Arab military power can be brought to bear. In both 1956 and 1967, the Israelis were stunningly successful with this doctrine and defeated Arab forces that were not only quantitatively, but also in many cases qualitatively superior. Although the morality of preemptive war is a hot topic of debate today, for the Israelis, there has never really been any discussion of the need to avoid fighting on Israeli soil at all costs, given the geography of the Jewish state.[1]

Handel outlines some serious critiques of the Israeli strategic planning process, in particular the unique political structure of Israel, with its coalition governments and parliamentary power sharing, which has in fact shown a remarkable unity when wartime strategy needed to be created and carried out. The lack of any standing national security bureaucracy for most of its existence would seem to argue that the execution of Israeli strategy ensured a fairly quick path from politicians to generals, particularly when many Israeli politicians are former themselves former generals, a unique situation in the Western World that has allowed Israeli politicians a much better understanding of the difficulties of modern war. Handel points out that this improvised process has occasionally produced tactical solutions to strategic problems, such as the 1982 Lebanon invasion and occupation, and only recently has Israel attempted to take a more balanced and rigorous look at their long-term strategic needs.[2] 

Moreover, the Israelis have made several major strategic and tactical blunders, some of them almost fatal. The extreme overconfidence of the IDF after the Six-Day War and an overreliance on intelligence for indications and warning to allow time for an Israeli mobilization nearly led to a Syrian breakthrough on the Golan Heights in 1973. The Israelis also significantly underestimated the fighting ability of the Arab armies to fight a set-piece battle and the effectiveness of their new Soviet SAM and ATGM systems. The Israelis were only saved by a desperate stand on the Golan, combined with the ability to trade space for time in the Sinai as their army was mobilized. Once the Israelis completed their mobilization and learned to counter the Arabs new weapons, the rigid Soviet-style tactics of their opponents allowed the Israeli forte at maneuver warfare to once again dominate the battlefield. However, as the essay points out the military shock of their experience with the Egyptian Army was likely a major contributor to the political efforts to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1977, removing the largest military force from Israel’s list of potential enemies.[3]


In terms of strategic planning and execution the Israelis have not fared so well in the 21st century. Although the IDF is still far ahead of its opponents in the realm of conventional warfare, the asymmetric threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah portend a new kind of strategic challenge that will be difficult to defeat. Israel made many of the same tactical and operational mistakes in the 2006 Hezbollah war that the U.S. has made in Iraq. An overreliance on airpower, the reluctance to commit ground forces to bloody urban combat and a complete misunderstanding of the complexities of waging war during a 24/7 news-cycle left the Israelis without even a real tactical victory in Lebanon. More importantly, the 2006 fiasco has shown the Palestinians and their mentors in Iran the long-term strategy to potentially defeat Israel: Goad the Israelis into attacking by firing rockets into Israel or kidnapping Israeli soldiers; hide your troops, missiles and equipment in hospitals, mosques and schools; broadcast lots of images on Al Jazerra of Israeli F-16s bombing those same hospitals, mosques and schools while showing images of fighters in civilian clothes lying in hospitals; when world opinion gets the Israelis to stop fighting on the verge of bombing you out of existence, declare victory and dance in the streets.[4]

Creating a long-term strategy to deal with these new threats, including a potentially nuclear-armed Iran will present a tremendous challenge to Israel, particularly considering that one (1) nuclear missile striking Tel Aviv could devastate Israel beyond recovery. Attempting to create long-term peace process will also be difficult, as Israel really has few military options short of the complete annihilation of Hamas and Hezbollah and their opponents understand this fact. As the Israelis struggle with this new strategic environment, they will face many of the same challenges the U.S. faces in our GWOT.

[1] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 538-539. 
[2] Murray, et al., 555-556, 562-564. 
[3] Murray, et al., 540-542, 574. 
[4] Andrew Exum, Hizballah at War: A Military Assessment (Washington Institute for Near East Policy:2006) downloaded at