Israeli strategic culture

  • Posted on: 14 June 2014

Strategic culture is defined by Giles as, “Shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior derived from common experiences and accepted narratives (both oral and written), that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives” (1).

In the case of the Jewish people there have been several historical events and circumstances that have shaped the collective strategic culture of the modern Israeli state. The most significant of these have been the subjection to exile and persecution, particularly in the late 19th century and the Nazi Holocaust. The latter, cataclysmic event claimed the lives of an estimated six million Jews. Such an event inevitably, and dramatically, affects collective attitudes. In other words, it is the collective memory of the Diaspora that has shaped the current Israeli Siege Mentality, and which is now one of the cornerstones of Israeli strategic culture. (2)

In every historical period, where Israel has faced external threat, that threat has come to be viewed as a danger to the very existence of the state of Israel, and directly linked, in some way or another, to the outcomes of the Holocaust. Hence, Israeli thinking has primarily focused on “worst case scenarios”. This is emphasized by the collective sense of strategic fatalism (2) that urges the defence community to seek absolute security (3). This, in turn, creates a mentality of “yield no inch”, a fundamental element shaping Israeli strategic culture. This assumption of imminent threat to existence was clearly seen in David Ben Gurion’s emphasis on the worst case scenario, defined in Hebrew as Nitreh Hakol, “attack from ALL of them”. The phrase refers to a simultaneous attack by all enemies, backed by a super power.

Israeli strategic culture reflects an assertive, flexible attitude, almost an ad hoc approach, towards planning and rules. This leads to a greater degree of improvisation, an attitude appreciated by Charles Freilich (4), who described it as a combination of improvisation and creativity giving Israel excellence in security affairs (2). It is essential to appreciate and understand that even the Israeli military injects elements of flexibility and improvisation into its training, and extols this course of action as it enables the provision of immediate, on the spot solutions. Driven by this mentality, the IDF have never codified security concepts in written documents, nor have any doctrinal publications on policy been produced. The general assumption has always been that the political leadership will provide clear guidance on how to deal with any given situation on a case by case basis.

Decision-making style is, therefore, characterized by extemporization and reactivity (3). This approach harks back to the early days of the state of Israel, where formidable security problems had to be faced constantly. At that time strategic decisions where often reached in small, ad hoc groups known as “Kitchen cabinets” (2). This form of non-institutionalized decision making enabled high speed communication and on the spot problem solving, which compensated for the lack of long term planning and deficiencies in numbers, weaponry and training. Since this form of decision making proved successful, it has been maintained ever since, despite the establishment of formal institutions (2).

The approach to the military profession has been affected by Israel’s deliberately cultivated self image of “doers” rather than “talkers”, thus favoring practitioners over theoreticians. Israel, of course, had both; formally trained theoreticians, who were military men from Europe and self-taught practitioners of the Haganah/Palmach. Those experts that had not taken part in direct action, and who tended to emphasize strategic complexities, were consequently marginalized because of the mainstream Israeli strategic instinct that favored a“tacticization” of strategy (4). In other words, they replaced strategy with swift military improvisation, driven by tactical, as opposed to strategic, thinking (2).

Several Israeli bodies have been affected by the unorthodox political reality that Israel faces. Thus, peculiar roles have been developed which might be considered almost unique. For example, military intelligence (AMAN) was affected by the fact that since 1948 Israel did not have diplomatic relations with its neighboring countries. There were no embassies to operate through. Consequently, foreign intelligence and the National Intelligence Estimate were both obtained through AMAN (5). The GS and strategic planning department also developed a “peculiar role” where it functioned more as a security council, with responsibility for the development and implementation of strategy.

Israeli concepts of national security

Israel's Foreign policy Principles have been affected by the vision of the founding fathers. The first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion stressed the importance of avoiding conflict with superpowers. He emphasized that Israel must be constantly under the umbrella of a superpower, a strategy adopted by Israel in 1948 (6) and maintained ever since.

Israeli strategic and physical asymmetry is based on the fact that the Israeli population is small in comparison to the populations of its neighboring enemies. Moreover the small land area of the state of Israel leads to a lack of strategic depth. This dilemma has been compensated for through the Information Technology Revolution in military affairs, known as IT-RMA. IT-RMA includes long range precision guided munitions and RSTA (reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting acquisitions). Indeed, the first use of drones in combat history was in the Bekka Valley, Lebanon, in 1982.

A further concept that influences Israeli strategic mentality is the notion of continuous rounds of violence, where it is believed that the conflict cannot be won, but that instead Israel has to deal with each round of violence that it will face on its own. This is reflected in the centrality of politics. In this approach, times of peace are perceived to be simply periods between inevitable rounds of violence. These periods of peace are considered to be illusory and even as smokescreens to allow the enemy time to prepare the next round of violence. Bearing this in mind, it is understandable why Israel has adopted a defensive strategy and offensive tactics (3) leading to two primary states of constant war and peace. This concept is manifested on the ground in the Security Triangle which is represented by the three main pillars of Israeli homeland security. Since Israel is, essentially, a country seeking to maintain the status quo, deterrence is the primary pillar and has a constant status as a policy. Israel uses different forms of threat to preserve this status quo (5). In the event that deterrence fails, the second pillar of the Security Triangle comes into play, which is early intelligence warning. Such intelligence is vital in order to mobilize reserves and carry out preemptive strikes where such action is deemed appropriate.

The Third pillar, Battlefield Decision, is ensured by Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which is based on different, higher, levels of military effectiveness, such as having advanced technology superiority, strong unit cohesion and strategic ingenuity. These elements allow the Israeli forces to implement rapid offensive tactics that target the nerve centre of the opponent, a tactic known as cult of the offensive, which is based on the belief of military leaders that the attacker will be victorious. Pragmatic tactics are adopted by the Israeli military; for example, there is a belief that the window of opportunity in which Israel can engage in offensive or pre-emptive action, is time limited as the supporting superpowers will intervene to call for a cease-fire. There is, therefore, a “sand clock” in operation from the beginning of any such action. 
Another factor that Israeli military must take into account is that Israeli society has an extremely low tolerance of casualties. It is imbedded in Israeli mentality that total military victory over the Arabs, cannot be achieved, while on the other hand, it is believed that a single Israeli failure will, in effect, be a total failure. Thus, the most that Israel can do is thwart enemy aggression in “this round”. Ideally, therefore, any actions have to be fought on enemy territory, hence the lack of strategic depth. A short-term “blitzkrieg” approach is deemed preferable for economic reasons, since the economic reality of using a reserve army mitigates against the possibility of a protracted war.

However, since 2006, Israeli strategists have begun to pay more attention to active (i.e. Iron dome) and passive (i.e. shelters) defence. Defence has come to be known as the “fourth pillar” and has been added to the national Security Triangle. Defensive weapon systems have been developed and procured, and civil defense organizations and doctrines inaugurated. This novel emphasis has expanded the role of deterrence in Israeli strategic thought and made it more or less equal to that of offensive operations (7).

Imminent challenge

Since the late 1990s, a comprehensive discussion relating to changes in Military Innovations in Revolutions in Military Affairs, known as RMA (or radical military innovation), has been ongoing (8). In these discussions, new organizational structures, together with novel concepts of operations, for example, Strategic Mobility WWI and cyber/digital age, have been explored (2). It is in the nature of opponents to adapt and develop in parallel with the changes in the nature of warfare, and the strategies and tactics of those they are fighting, to the extent that even non-state actors have their own RMA, and this is known as the Other Revolution in military affairs referred to as O-RMA. The type of warfare Israel encountered in Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2009 is a clear and challenging outcome of the conceptual development of O-RMA. Thus, it is recommended that a more systematic approach to the phenomenon referred to as O-RMA is considered.

In conclusion, current Israeli issues in National Security have to be addressed in the context that there are underlying, and at the moment, immutable factors which influence the strategy and tactics that can be implemented. The first is that embedded in the Israeli psyche, is the idea that the country is under constant siege and that it cannot win the war outright against its neighbors, but if it loses once the state of Israel will cease to exist. As a result, the belief has developed that to survive Israel must have the protection of superpowers and, hence, its offensive options are curtailed and limited in scope by the necessity of not alienating those powers. This, in turn, leads to an approach that is based on short term tactics aimed at resolving each “episode” of aggression as quickly as possible and, if practical, on enemy territory to minimize losses in the homeland. 
Whether such a strategy, based on constant reaction, and preparation to react to actual and perceived threats, can be maintained indefinitely is, of course, the major issue to be faced.




(1) Gregory F. Giles, Continuity and Change in Israel’s Strategic Culture, (Available at: 
(2) Dima Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010),
(3) Michael Handel, The evolution of Israeli Strategy; The psychology of insecurity and the quest for absolute security. 
(4) Charles Freilich, “National Security Decision Making in Israel: Processes, Pathologies, and Strengths,” Middle East Journal, vol. 60, no. 4, 2006. pp. 635-663.
(5) Uri Bar Joseph (1998): Variations on a theme: Theconceptualization of deterrence in Israeli strategic thinking, Security Studies, 7:3,145-181
(6) Abraham Ben-Zvi and Aharon Klieman, Global Politics: Essays in Honor of David Vital (London: Routledge, 2001), Chapters 9 and 11.
(7) Uzi Rubin, An Active Defense Against Rockets and Missiles (Bar Ilan University: BESA Perspective Paper No.69, February, 2009), pp. 1-5.
(8) Itai Brun and Carmit Valenci, “The RMA of the Other Side,” in Dima Adamsky and Kjell Inge Bjerga, Contemporary Military Innovation (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 107-130.

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