The Background Strategic Debate Quietly Affecting Israel’s Politics – Part 1

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By Dr. David Wurmser

Part I

Israel has had three elections within about a year and may even require a fourth. The drama surrounding this deadlock, and the chaotic mechanics of forming, or failing to form, a government is obscuring deeper trends which also affect the elections’ outcomes. These are trends in some cases which have been building for a decade or more, and some are well- known and others tediously discussed. And yet, of the numerous factors informing voting in the recent rounds of Israeli elections, one of the least discussed but most important is a debate over strategic defense concepts which have governed Israel’s security establishment for decades. And this debate has serious reverberations across the seas to our shores as well.

Israel’s strategic debate is not about the peace process. After the intense assault by the Palestinians on Israel in the terror campaign from 2001-03, Israelis stopped believing a negotiated settlement with their Palestinian neighbors was possible. In terms of domestic politics, that issue was formally retired by the unilateral withdrawal by Israel from Gaza in 2005-06, which was an admission by a center-left government at the time of the end of the possibility of a negotiated, bilateral peace agreement, known as the “Olso process.”

Moreover, polls consistently suggest a continued lack of faith in a peace process. It is true that some parties, or more accurately, some Israeli politicians and media opinion setters, out of inertia, on the left still talk about the need to avoid unilateral actions and instead opt for negotiated arrangements with the Palestinians. And yet, in terms of the narrow question of faith in a negotiated settlement, Israelis poll to the right of their actual voting patterns,
meaning some who are “right wing” on the peace process nonetheless vote for center and center-left parties. They do so precisely because they believe it is “safe” to vote leftward and that any party – regardless of its rhetoric — would be unable to successfully embark on a leftist peace process agenda again. Indeed, it was for this reason that about a half decade ago, Israel’s major left-leaning party, the Labor Party, under its leader at the time, Sheli Yehaimovich, reoriented the core message of the party away from the issue of the peace process, and more toward social issues and a reinvigorated socialist ethic (although that did not work either to gain votes).

The Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” codifies what had long already been digested by Israelis: devise a mechanism to give other states a bridge to move beyond the Palestinian issue and reach out to Israel directly to address far broader strategic interests. Israel’s ability to transcend its unnatural state of isolation, even regionally, can no longer be held hostage to solving the Palestinian issue.
Viewing the debate through the narrow prism of the peace process, many commentators today thus conclude that there is little, if any material difference between the Likud Party and the Blue-White party since both largely dismiss the idea that there is a viable peace partner on the Palestinian side because Palestinian leaders are either unwilling to make peace (Hamas), or unable to do so since they are irrelevant (PLO).

And yet, there is a difference in terms of strategic thought between the two parties. Israelis increasingly feel their inability to suppress security challenges that often disrupt their lives is eroding. Over the last two decades, Israelis are simply losing confidence that their security establishment is effectively dealing with the threat and defeating these far inferior military forces along their southern and northern borders.

Two particular developments emphasized and exacerbated the unspoken but rising nervousness about the security establishment’s inability to maintain strategic initiative and stay ahead of the enemy: the 2006 war against Hezbollah and the series of mini-wars against Hamas starting about 2008. Israelis increasingly suspect the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are ever more often being shown up and taken for a ride, not tactically or in terms of localized fighting ability – Israelis still hold great faith in the soldiers and their technology — but by their enemies’ ability to take and keep strategic initiative when the IDF should be able to decisively destroy them.

This perception is not alleviated by the historical memory Israelis have. For Israel’s first 40 years, it was much weaker relative to its enemies than in the last two decades. And yet, despite its weakness and the fear of great power reaction, Israel still always carried the war into the enemy’s territory and kept Israel’s homeland relatively calm, even in major war. Life in Israel was always under a shadow, but the level of violence Israelis faced in their homes and cities on a daily basis, and even in wartime itself, was not only limited, but receding with each decade. In contrast, in the last decade and a half, the hunkering down, sheltering in place, and ongoing disruption of Israeli life in major parts of the country, and the inability of the IDF to bring that to a decisive end – let alone the regional perception of failing Israeli deterrence and the resulting global erosion of the legitimacy of Israel — has gnawed away at the confidence Israelis had in their security establishment. And this is not helped by the fact that the problem is not fading, but instead is growing with each round.

Moreover, this nagging and rising suspicion of strategic inadequacy is beginning to affect
popular confidence in the IDF’s competence in dealing not only with the highly irritating and costly threats from Gaza. It is beginning to bleed their confidence in the IDF’s ability to deal with looming existential threats such as Iran, or any successor threat to Iran (like
Erdogan’s Turkey).
While dramatic in itself, and as noted while not being about the peace process, the growing discomfort was also not really about embracing more or less hardline policies on Iran, nor even about the lessons and aftermath of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – although those debates also happen in Israel.

To truly understand the current debate, one has to return the days after the end of the War of Attrition (1967-1970). Although not always overtly or consciously expressed, Israeli strategic thinking in the early 1970s underwent a profound shift as new strategic concepts which had arisen in the United States seduced Israeli defense and security elites, migrated to Israel’s defense structures, and then dominated Israel’s strategic thinking.

Until 1970, Israel settled on a strategy of preemption, decisive war, and “knock-out” blows partly out of contemplation and design set by such strategic thinkers as David Ben-Gurion – who took nearly a year off in 1947 to read and study carefully the history and current state of thought regarding the concept of national strategy — and partly out of necessity. After 1970, however, Israel departed from the strategic concept which had prevailed and yielded to a
new doctrine anchored to the centrality of the US guarantee of Israel’s quantitative edge, the
guarantee of US funding to secure it.

The increased dependence on the United States after 1970 was also accompanied by exciting access to American thinkers and military strategists. Israeli military planners and strategists were now accepted in the “big leagues,” and were thus quite exposed, indeed vulnerable, to the prevailing ideas of the time.

But it was right around this time, perhaps slightly earlier, that the United States itself was embarking on a brave new world of strategic thinking. After World War II, the United States had developed a mobilized national structure defined around a twilight international struggle to frustrate a totalitarian Soviet ideology into collapse, namely containment. Containment as originally conceived did imagine victory, and while there were several quite novel and innovative aspects to this concept of strategy, in part because the threat was quite novel and innovative, but it was still grounded in traditional thinking.

Whether Carl von Clausewitz and his insights into dealing a fatal blow to the adversary’s political will by striking decisively at the point of his critical mass, or Sir Basil Henry Liddell- Hart’s indirect approach to wear down and cause a similar collapse of that point of critical mass of political will, the strategies nonetheless understood victory the same. So too the original concept of containment. The U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, George Kennan, outlined in the secret cable, which came to be known as the “long telegram” of 1947, how a constant strategy of pressure and frustration of Soviet expansion would eventually lead to an ideological crisis. That expectation of ideological crisis offered a path to a concept of victory and the war’s end. Containment thus originally was designed to globally
hem in and constantly frustrate Soviet ambition to the point where it would lead to ideological crisis and collapse. The framers of containment understood that communism, being a historical-determinist idea firmly anchored to faith in an arc of history, could not
digest the indefinite suspension of the global revolution’s advance. Sooner or later, frustrated ambition would yield to collapsed confidence in the idea’s inevitability. While a Cold War, it was a war with a strategy toward decisive victory.

By the 1960s, the structure, while maintained, was repurposed and its foundations shifted. It became grounded to new theoretical ideas of international relations. The old structure was to be underpinned by a new idea, at the center of which was an ongoing effort to manage an
enemy’s behavior through rational incentivization. This strategy was no longer unique to our struggle with the Soviet Union; it could as easily be applied as well to a semi-literate tin-pot dictator as to a hyper-intellectualized Communist leader. It was strategy anchored to the rational actor model of economics rather than political theory, cultural knowledge, or civilizational historical analysis.

Most importantly, gone was the idea of victory. Gone was the idea shared by all strategic thinkers until then, from Clausewitz to Liddell-Hart: that wars are episodic, and they end when the adversary’s political will is broken at its most critical aspect or foundation.

But as the strategy changed to the new, economics-based theory based on the rational-actor model, so too did the objective. Moreover, the view emerged that science could be applied to international relations, and the interactions among nations could be understood as a “system,” operating with systemic rules. The idea that ideas and ideologies drove nations’ actions was challenged by the new ideas of international relations.

On top of this, a pessimism had set in about the intellectual power of American purpose and the resolve (many even questioned the dominance) of American power.

When the scientific outlook and the pessimism combined, the idea that our adversaries’ threatening ideas could be defeated yielded to a more modest and restrained outlook that our adversaries could only be managed. So, management replaced victory as the goal, and competition became perpetual rather than episodic, with a beginning and end. The purpose of war was not to defeat an enemy, but shape the rules of conflict and engagement.

And it was applied quickly to the war in Vietnam.

The malaise of the Vietnam War did little to challenge the new strategic concept. Instead, American security elites used the failure of the Vietnam war to validate the doubt they harbored to begin with over the resolve of the will of people of the United States to maintain a twilight struggle. Ironically, the failure of the Vietnam War was used to justify the
rejection of the underlying strategy which had already been abandoned before the war and validate the new theories, through which Vietnam had been fought, that were very heavily influenced by economic theory and rational-actor models of incentivization not to win, but manage the enemy’s behavior. So, despite the failure of the Vietnam War, the defense and security establishment of the United States descended deeper into transforming the containment structure in its entirety, not only in Vietnam, into a perpetual, global “conflict management” structure and commitment without a concept of victory at all. The conflict between the free world and the communist bloc was demoted from being a real, but cold war, to a competition freed of most of its moral baggage.

Along with that shift, so too shifted the role of international institutions. At first just a modernized form of the Concert of Europe – a balance of power structure anchored to the
world’s greatest powers – the body of post-World War II international institutions, foremost among them the United Nations, transformed into more of a structure of regulation and codification of the conflict management structure, acquiring ever more supranational sovereignty along the way. A referee stands above the players, and thus so too must international institutions stand above the nations.

And yet, something did not sit right in this strategy with Americans, who still saw themselves as the force of freedom and morality and capable of boundless power and grit. This limited and pessimistic vision of our power and purpose was joltingly askew with our having just landed a man on the moon. While deeply suspicious of this constant strategy and mobilization of global conflict management, Americans could still not bring themselves to reconcile with the pessimism, or “malaise” as President Carter called it, let alone retreat.
Americans still understood conflict in a traditional sense: a war ends when there is a victory, and ultimately, so too must communism be vanquished, not managed. Landing a man on the moon was a victory, not a stride in managing conflict. And then in victory we can all go home to do what free peoples do best: mind their own business and pursue their dreams.

As such, the stage was set for an American resurgence toward victory, where the underlying defense concepts shifted again: the Reagan era. But this refocused conflict with the Soviet Union was no longer moored to economic theory with its rational-actor based models of containment that had evolved in the 1950s and 1960s. America under President Reagan rejoined the twilight struggle with Russia with an aim of victory, not eternal management of conflict. His was an old America, a traditional America.

His defense department started planning force structures and tactics that drive home the point to the Soviet Union that a conflagration would be won by the West. He employed rhetoric that emphasized the West would win and communism would die. He reminded Americans what the ideas of the United States and communism were about, and that the former will prevail over the latter. He was the sheriff who walked into a saloon and
reminded himself, the outlaw and everyone present that the town was too small for both to coexist and manage their conflict.

While Reagan believed the cold war can and must be won, he understood – as did Kennan — that it will require a constant frustration of the enemy that engenders an ideological crisis and eventual collapse.

America’s security and diplomatic elite met these new Reaganesque ideas – really revived traditional ideas — with horror. The elites flung accusations of irresponsibility, sported a snarky dismissiveness of this “simplistic” and warned of the dangerous “cowboy-like
adventurism.” They joked that he could not differentiate between their sophisticated world of realism and his simplistic make-believe world of Hollywood. Especially distasteful to the security elites seemed to be the retrograde idea, beyond which they believed they had progressed, that the Cold War – or any war – could be won in decisive victory. The moniker that “military means cannot solve problems” had prevailed, but suddenly Reagan and his outsiders either did not get, or failed to heed, the memo. Simply, the entire strategic imagery of Reagan and his outsiders upturned a generation of American security and defense experts, and the institutions they built to manage conflict were repurposed to execute their outsider revolution and win a war.

Indeed, Soviet collapse and America’s victory came, exactly as Reagan had predicted, but faster than imagined even by those who crafted the strategy, in 1990.

As such, Reagan may have focused on defeating the Soviet Union, but he had also launched a war against the Washington defense, security and diplomatic establishment. Ironically, the Soviet collapse led not to humility, but only to intensified rage under which the jilted defense and security establishment elites bristled. The anger and disdain harbored among
America’s defense and security elites toward the upstart Reagan defense and security team was deep and long lasting, the reverberations of which are felt all the way into the present day.

American’s victory in the Cold War did little to change that and validate the Reagan-era defense concepts. The establishment’s elites were determined to prevail, and had the
bureaucratic and institutional power to do so. Indeed, the security and defense establishment of today in America is largely a descendent of the Kissinger-era’s, not the Reagan era’s, strategic imagery, assumptions, and concept.

In part II of this essay, we will examine how the debate in Washington over strategy played out also in Israel, and is now the backstory in current and future elections.
will likely emerge here in the United States.