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Israel Table of Contents


Strategic Depth

Israel considered an offensive rather than a defensive strategy the best deterrent to Arab attack. Because of the absence until 1967 of the depth of terrain essential for strategic defense, Israel could ensure that military action was conducted on Arab territory only by attacking first. Moreover, Israel feared that a passive defensive strategy would permit the Arabs, secure in the knowledge that Israel would not fight unless attacked, to wage a protracted low-level war of attrition, engage in brinkmanship through incremental escalation, or mobilize for war with impunity. Paradoxically, then, the policy of deterrence dictated that Israel always had to strike first. The Israeli surprise attack could be a "preemptive" attack in the face of an imminent Arab attack, an unprovoked "preventive" attack to deal the Arab armies a setback that would stave off future attack, or a massive retaliation for a minor Arab infraction. Israel justified such attacks by the concept that it was locked in permanent conflict with the Arabs.

The occupation of conquered territories in 1967 greatly increased Israel's strategic depth, and Israeli strategic thinking changed accordingly. Many strategists argued that the IDF could now adopt a defensive posture, absorb a first strike, and then retaliate with a counteroffensive. The October 1973 War illustrated that this thinking was at least partially correct. With the added security buffer of the occupied territories, Israel could absorb a first strike and retaliate successfully.

But when Sharon was appointed minister of defense in 1981, he advocated that Israel revert to the more aggressive pre-1967 strategy. Sharon argued that the increased mechanization and mobility of Arab armies, combined with the increased range of Arab surface-to-surface missile systems (SSMs), nullified the strategic insulation and advanced warning that the occupied territories afforded Israel. Israel, therefore, faced the same threat that it had before 1967 and, incapable of absorbing a first strike, should be willing to launch preventive and preemptive strikes against potential Arab threats. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for which Sharon was substantially responsible, the aggressive national security posture that he advocated waned in popularity. By 1988, however, Iraq's use of SSMs against Iran and Saudi Arabia's acquisition of long-range SSMs from China suggested to some Israeli strategists that the concepts of extensive threat and preemption should again be given more weight.

Data as of December 1988