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Fri, July 08, 2011 | By Jared Feldschreiber

Israeli Chief of Staff, Moshe Dayan (at left) speaking at Sharm el Sheikh. To his right is Avraham Yoffe, commander of the 9th Brigade whose forces captured the strategic position. (Source: wikipedia; This image is in the public domain)


Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall

Essay concerning Israel’s Strategic Doctrine by Jared Feldschreiber.

Since its independence, changing threats from Israel’s enemies has forced the country to adhere to the basic components of Israel’s Strategic Doctrine. According to its First Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, Israel must deal a severe knockout blow through a series of rounds against Arab enemies, as quantitatively it could never achieve one cumulative victory. “We have a unique military problem — we are few while our enemies are many — and the number… is a major military factor. So what has helped us to survive until now and what will help us in the future? Only our qualitative advantage,” he said. This will require maximized Jewish ingenuity and an emphasis on the qualitative edgeits human factor, compensating for Israel’s quantitative inferiority.

Ben Gurion lifted his military strategy from Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky whose 1923 essay entitled Iron Wall, argued that Arabs will never agree to a Jewish majority within Israel and that Jews can only survive by possessing a particular military and strategic prowess. According to his seminal essay, Iron Wall, the Jewish people must convince their enemies that the Arabs will never be able to psychologically or physically able to overwhelm and defeat them. The Arabs should view the destruction of the Jewish population in Palestine as something unfeasible, and well beyond their capabilities. The Iron Wall was to be built by two columns, enhanced by a strong self-defense organization. Jabotinsky established the Haganah, which later became the Israeli Defense Forces.[1]

Ben Gurion understood the precarious situation Israel was in after independence within the Middle East. The country was simply too small to ever conquer bigger countries, like Egypt, Syria or Jordan. Israel may win individual wars on the battlefield, but this sense of military superiority was finite. Israel must be prepared to fight another war soon thereafter. A “knockout punch” much like in boxing proved to be the most optimum metaphor to describe what Israel ought to do, as “victories” could never be won by “points.“ For instance, the 1967 6-Day War: was a swift and decisive victory for Israel, capturing the West Bank and part of Jerusalem from Jordan, Gaza from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. Israel radically reshaped the landscape of the Middle East within days, and with decisiveness, it seemed as though Israel was invincible. And yet. Egyptians soon regrouped and re-launched attacks during the War of Attrition one year later, which lasted an additional two years until 1970. In October 1973, Israel was caught off guard, and was dealt a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, as three-thousand Israel Defense Forces troops were killed in the first weeks of the war.

The principles of Israel’s Strategic Doctrine predate the State of Israel, in 1921, just after the end of the Ottoman Empire. There existed a high level of tension between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine at the time, as many Palestinian Arabs saw themselves as the first Arab bloc, and the buying of Arab land by newly arrived Zionists was seen as patronizing. Riots and uprisings soon broke out, concerning water and other resources. Above all, the fighting concerned disputes over the sovereignty of the land.[2]

The overarching Israeli philosophy regarding security matters has been to maintain a Jewish majority within Israel, and to maximize their qualitative edge. As head of the Haganah, Ben Gurion employed methods that were used by generals in World War II, such as a strike force unit of soldiers and tanks. These methods required adhering to logistics. He seemed to ascribe to the motto: “what you have versus what you are able to have.” In Hebrew, this unit is known as Koach Ham’az. A modern Air Force was also implemented. They were the first to build armed divisions.

On October 12, 1953, Israel’s Strategic Doctrine was formed. The tenets in this doctrine have mostly held up until today. The 1950s thinking was the Jewish State would always be inferior to its hostile Arab countries in terms of quantity, so Ben Gurion sought ways to find a counterweight, encouraging Jewish Aliyah, or Jewish immigration, which began since the end of the 19th century, but skyrocketed after the country’s independence. Ben Gurion also encouraged high birthrates. He envisaged closing the gap of quantity to appeal to their qualitative edge. He saw that Jews (and Israeli society) would champion science and technology, with an inherent Jewish motivational drive for excellence. According to Ben Gurion, it was paramount to utilize the brilliance of the ’gene pool’ inherent in Israeli society. “Our human resources in general are no worse than any other country, with our moral and intellectual ability far exceeding our neighbors. This is our chief advantage,” he said. “And for now it is virtually our only one. To exploit their role fully. They must be equipped with full exploitation of all innovative scientific and technological conquest for our defense” he said.[3]

Israel’s military strategy also employed a model akin to that of Carl Von Clausewitz. This focused on military success need be dependent on disarming, occupying, and perhaps most importantly, “breaking the will’ of its opponent. Clausewitz wrote that the aggressor needed to “render its enemy powerless.” These factors extend to both levels of the army: the compulsory service which is unpaid, coupled with the regular army, which is paid. Both of these units adhere to another Israeli maxim: “all wars would be temporary, but all losses will be permanent.” This underscores how Israel remains a country heavily on high-alert.

With help from the French atomic engineers, Israel opened up the Dimona Nuclear Reactor Facility in Southern Israel, south of Beersheba. The “program to acquire nuclear weapons probably began after the Sinai Campaign, as a technological challenge whose solution would provide the ultimate answer to its security. There was little time to ponder the longer-range complications inevitably created by nuclear weapons.”[4] Israel’s drive for nuclear weapons capability originated with a doomsday scenario first put forward in 1950. These concerns dealt with the prospect of a unified Arab coalition starting an all-out war aimed at the total destruction of the Jewish state and the military advantage these enemies would enjoy.[5] The nuclear reactor in Dimona went critical in 1962, and by 1967 the Israeli reprocessing plant was completed and ready to convert the reactor’s fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium. A CIA report from early 1967 suggested that Israel had the materials to construct a bomb within weeks. It is believed that Israel may have conducted an underground test in the Negev in 1963.

By the end of the Six Day War, the United States began to monitor and write reports about its activities, but has never acknowledged its capabilities. The US has allowed Israel to maintain its nuclear ambiguity for deterrence purposes, one of the main components of Israel’s Strategic Doctrine. US President Nixon summoned Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, insisting that Israel would never execute a potential nuclear strike on its Arab enemies without American consultation. The Arabs understood that Israel would only make use of its capabilities if it were existentially threatened. Israeli General Yigal Allon once described this as cumulative deterrence. “Through a series of leaks and veiled statements, the spread of rumors and other political actions (refusing to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT), Israel would bolster its nuclear image — an image comprising indirect evidence of an existing nuclear capability and hints of a deterrence doctrine.”[6]

General Allon’s idea of “cumulative deterrence‘ is similar to the notion of disproportionate force, in that it requires Israel’s enemies to think twice about attacking Israel. This complements, and even mirrors, some of the basic tenets of Jabotinsky’s ideas in his essay Iron Wall. Through its implementation of disproportionate force, Israel’s enemies will know they will be met with heavy force. Disproportionate force in war is meant to strike a serious blow to the military, strategic and economical assets of its enemy. Through deterrence by utilization of its nuclear facilities, and for fear of disproportionate force, Syria, for instance, has not attacked Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In some cases, however, like in the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel, which was accused of disproportionate force in its fight against Hezbollah, had also made tactical errors, something it cannot afford to make in the future. Israel sought to destroy many of Hezbollah’s weapon caches during the war, but fought a limited war air campaign, rather than executing total war, which would require ground troops. This sacrificed its success; Israel’s decision to not employ total war against Hezbollah in Lebanon compromised its outcome as the war was seen as a draw to most analysts, as Israel engaged in a low-intensity conflict.

Israel’s Strategic Doctrine has remained mostly unchanged for nearly sixty years. In this period, due to the unpredictable nature of the” fog of war,” and the unpredictability of its special precarious position it is positioned in the Middle East, Israel has often made tactical blunders, also for not following some of the components of its doctrine. The human factor has let it suffer a false sense of security, and even prone to arrogance, believing that its deterrence and its use of disproportionate force would overwhelm its enemies. In fact, it has often backfired. Israel’s euphoria after the 1967 6-Day War was short lived as the swiftness of that victory gave the defense this false sense of security. In the first weeks of the Yom Kippur War, Israel lost three-thousand IDF soldiers, a huge number for a small country like Israel‘s, particularly forty years ago, when it was half the size as it is now.

Israel can no longer afford these kinds of tactical and psychological misjudgments in future wars, since it violates the indispensable components of Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall; Israel can never allow Arab neighbors to possess a military or strategic advantage over them. As a result of the 1973 ceasefire, Israel would relinquish the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, in exchange for peace. A positive development in some respects, but from a military perspective reflects that the tenets of the Iron Wall were radically and adversely affected. A six month Israeli investigation into the 2006 Lebanon War also was perceived as a failure, severely criticizing Israel‘s military strategy, concluding that this war was not “fought with a well-thought-out plan, reflecting severe failure in judgment, responsibility and caution. The aims of the war — to crush Hezbollah and force it to hand back two Israeli troops were cited as overly ambitious and impossible to achieve.”[7] Many experts believed ground troops were needed and ‘total war,’ as envisaged by Clausewitz, was necessary for victory. Hezbollah has since regrouped and restocked its weaponry that the Israel’s Air Force sought to destroy. The basic components of Israel’s Strategic Doctrine, including deterrence, disproportionate force, its qualitative edge and the tenets of the Iron Wall, remain both vital and severely flawed to Israel’s national security. Israel remains a potent state in a hostile neighborhood. However if Israel did not possess the main components of its strategic doctrine, the country would no doubt be in peril, and would likely not even exist today.


[1] Isaac Ben Israel Lecture. Tel Aviv University. Class Notes.

[2] Ben Israel Class Notes.

[3] jcpa.org.

[4] Michael I. Handel the Evolution of Israeli Strategy: The Psychology of Insecurity and the Quest for Absolute Security. 551.

[5] mitpressjournals.org.

[6] mitpressjournals.org.

[7] news.bbc.co.uk.

5 Comments to “Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall”

  1. Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall | #Israel #jcot #gurion http://bit.ly/o2YNUv

  2. avatar anon says:

    The Yom Kippur war was materially a decisive Israeli victory, but somehow the left managed to mind rape Israel into thinking it had lost and for some reason had to give the canal back. The psychological component is vital.

  3. avatar Elisabeth says:

    Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall | #Israel #jcot #gurion http://bit.ly/o2YNUv

  4. Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall – http://t.co/q5bfAzg

  5. Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: the Iron Wall – http://t.co/q5bfAzg


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