Israel's Evolving Security Concept

By Medzini, Meron | Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), December 2010 | Go to article overview

Israel's Evolving Security Concept


Medzini, Meron, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)


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

CONSTANTS IN ISRAEL'S SECURITY DOCTRINE

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. …

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