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Grand Strategic Thinking for Israel

Yehezkel Dror
Policy Paper No. 23, 1998


Thanks to outstanding personalities and the relative simplicity of issues, despite their harshness, Israeli grand strategic thinking well met requirements until the Six Day War. However, the quality of strategic planning has not kept up with the increasing opportunities and growing complexities facing Israel, with some distinguished exceptions such as designing Israel’s unconventional capacity images. All in all, Israeli politico-security thinking fails adequately to integrate political and military considerations, together with economic, technological and psycho-social ones, into a comprehensive and long term grand strategy which can serve as a good basis for current choices.

To deal with the reasons for the above, as described herein (items 1-8), some eleven specifications need to be met. To achieve these qualities, seven measures are recommended at the end.

I. On "Grand Strategic Thinking"

"Grand strategic thinking" is defined as the cognitive infrastructure available in a country to serve as the knowledge and idea foundation for important future-influencing choices in political-security domains. Unless we accept a rather mystical view of statecraft, it can be assumed that the availability of high quality grand strategic thinking increases the probability of high quality policies being considered and adopted. Until the Six Day War, Zionism and the State of Israel enjoyed levels of grand strategic thinking meeting the main requirements, all the more so as situations were relatively clear and options were limited. However, since the Six Day War, there has been a growing gap between grand strategic thinking and the complexities of situations and the multiplicity of options faced by Israel. So a radical upgrading of grand strategic thinking is required.

II. A Short History of Israeli Grand Strategic Thinking

The quality of grand strategic thinking available to Israel is a matter of critical importance for her: the founders and main leaders of Zionism were outstanding persons who employed grand strategic thinking without calling it that. They combined long term vision with good tactical sense. Many intellectuals were active in Zionism, producing a proliferation of ideas on policies to follow. For all its errors, the richness of grand strategic thinking provided multiple ideas and options to be relied upon in making decisions fitting rapidly changing conditions. Thus, grand strategic thinking did, I think, make a very significant contribution to the heroic successes of Zionism.

Such high quality grand strategic thinking was not based on specialized bodies, think tanks, teaching programs etc., nor on trained policy professionals. Rather, it was the product of free-floating intellectuals, contemplative politicians, intelligent defense officials, etc.: choices were relatively clear-cut and the number of variables to be taken into account was limited. However, special institutions and professionals may be needed for doing so when situations are more complex and the option space is larger.

The situation changed dramatically during and after the 1967 Six Day War. Israel suddenly acquired a much expanded space of policy options, within radically new and much more complex situations that were far beyond earlier thinking. No cognitive infrastructure for coping with the new challenges, opportunities and dangers was available. Uncertainties and complexities increased by orders of magnitude, requiring professional qualifications and experience largely unavailable. And no agencies to engage in innovative grand strategic thinking were available. The muddled settlement policy (based on constant improvisations, carried out on too small a scale to change the demographic realities in Judea and Samaria, and on too large to permit easy withdrawal as part of a "land for peace" deal) illustrates serious errors, yet it was carried out by successive governments.

Israel had achieved a tremendous victory and become a dominant regional power, so why bother upgrading grand strategic thinking. This was the prevailing view. It took the shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War to awaken Israel from its grand strategic slumber. Since then, many efforts have been made to upgrade grand strategic thinking: new strategic planning bodies have been set up in the Israeli Defense Forces; long term situational assessment has much improved; a number of mini think tanks dealing with national security issues have been set up and produce some impressive surveys and analyses; some training and teaching in national security is provided in the defense establishment and at the universities; and writings by individual scholars, professionals and intellectuals on grand strategic issues have proliferated, including some on formerly "taboo" subjects.

Still, Israel continues to suffer from inadequate grand strategic thinking (as distinguished from very high quality work on military issues in the defense establishment) because

  1. Ideology irradiates think-tanks and individual scholars alike
  2. Intense political competition and TV mass politics encourage many politicians to eschew delicate issues and to limit study of them
  3. Exaggerated self-esteem among politicians limits the willingness of many to consult expert opinion
  4. Intellectuals have become increasingly mass media oriented
  5. Institutional traditions and interests have proven difficult to overcome. Decisions going back to Ben-Gurion prevent establishment of grand strategic planning bodies attached to the Minister of Defense, while resistance by the defense establishment prevents setting up a strong politico-strategic planning agency under the Prime Minister. There is over-reliance on work done in the military, ignoring basic differences between high quality military thinking and grand strategic thinking.
  6. Adequate professional training and teaching in grand strategic thinking and planning is not provided by any organization in Israel.
  7. High level decision making processes and cultures became more "pragmatic" and "practical," reducing the demand for a cognitive basis. Decisions have been made without adequate staff work. Lack of demand and of receptivity depressed in turn grand strategic thinking.
  8. The lack of knowledge enabling high quality grand strategic thinking on very complex issues in rapidly shifting situations characterizes Israel

III. "Frontier Knowledge" for Israeli Grand Strategic Thinking

Grand strategic thinking suffers from weaknesses in most countries, including the USA since the fall of the Soviet Empire. This is probably because "text book" grand strategic approaches, methods and methodologies are grossly inadequate for coping with the real world. To provide substantive help in making critical choices by providing a salient cognitive infrastructure -- new "frontier knowledge" must serve as the basis for grand strategic thinking.

1. Consideration of long-term non-linear dynamics

Since the Middle East is in a process of rapid change that is likely to be turbulent, linear extrapolation is inadequate for exploring the future. It is necessary to think of alternative futures in terms of non-linear dynamics, including "leaps". Applied to the Oslo Process, thinking should focus not on the so-called "permanent arrangement," but on the long range evolutionary potential of the establishment of a Palestinian Arab entity of one type or another. For example, destabilization of the Kingdom of Jordan may be quite likely if the Palestinian entity enjoys broad freedom of action while being unable or unwilling to focus on peaceful development. This, in turn, requires consideration of the potential impacts of its destabilization on Israeli long term security requirements.

2. Thinking in terms of deep history

Demography, beliefs and cultures, socioeconomic factors, and science and technology are among the deep driving factors, together with the accidents of history, such as the characteristics of individual future rulers. These must be in the center of grand strategic thinking, in addition to "current events," and even more so. Applied to the Oslo Process, grave doubts must be cast on any expectation that even a "comprehensive peace" can be relied upon to remain stable for long, given the variables in the region.

3. Comprehensive systems perspective

Grand strategic thinking requires consideration of each issue within a broad systems perspective, taking into account interaction between a broad range of issues within global dynamics as a whole. Global dynamics has many implications for the Oslo Process. it may be better for Israel to "ride" on global dynamics and agree in advance to what is inevitable (other countries’ recognition of a Palestinian state) while seeking side-payments compensating it for doing so, rather than resist the nearly inevitable.

4. Policy based on geo-strategic and geo-cultural specifics

The comprehensive systems perspective requires divergent thinking. But grand strategic thinking must also converge on the geostrategic and geocultural realities of the Middle East and its nearby environment, as changing with time. Applied to the Oslo Process, grand strategic thinking casts grave doubts on expectations for a "New Middle East," peaceful and cooperative, to emerge in the foreseeable future. So Israel must make itself ready for new threats after peace agreements are signed as well as being able to shift unavoidable turbulence to other areas by achieving a relatively stable accommodation with its neighbors.

5. Both "grand design" and critical choice oriented

The Oslo Process clearly poses to Israel a set of critical decisions, though after the completion of the first phase Israel's space of free movement is much reduced. All the more so, grand strategic thinking must work out alternative long term futures for the Palestinian Arab entity, say for 25 years ahead, to see which ones may better meet Israeli values and security requirements. Concomitantly, alternative long term nightmare situations that may result from the Oslo Process must also be worked out. It is only on the basis of such long term realistic visions, however dense with uncertainties, that critical decisions on the permanent agreement can be analyzed in depth and preferable choices can be developed.

6. Considering options in terms of "combinations"

Grand strategic thinking focuses on what is called in chess terminology "combinations", that is, sets of sequences of moves which result in long term achievements, even if initially sacrifices are made. Applied to the Oslo process, it is necessary to think in tandem on Israeli steps towards the Palestinians, development of a new Israeli war doctrine, relations with Syria, relations with Egypt and Jordan, impacts on USA and European Union policy, economic implications, domestic political and social implications, etc. Such sets of Israeli interrelated options should be considered in terms of interaction chains.

This is a demanding requirement, but within the boundaries of the doable, at least exploratively, if adequate expertise is available to identify core issues within main alternative trajectories and if modern methods for coping with complexity are fully utilized.

7. Policy closely related to violence technologies and doctrines

In the Israeli case, war possibilities must be central to grand strategic thinking. However, a broader perspective is required which includes additional forms of violence, such as low intensity warfare, civil conflict, conventional and unconventional terrorism and other violence modalities. Violence and related technologies are but tools providing potentials, the utilization of which depends on innovative war, intelligence and violence doctrines, which may be even more surprise-prone than the technologies themselves. The Oslo Process also illustrates the need for creative R&D to meet new possibilities. Thus, to contain possible threats emanating from the Palestinian entity while preserving peace, novel, non-lethal weapons systems may be necessary, accompanied by new doctrines and force structures. Similarly the security significance of the Golan Heights may appear different if emerging technologies reduce the importance of depth and height for intelligence, deterrence and war fighting (for instance with space vehicles and distant area weapons within the reach of Israel provide intelligence and war fighting capabilities superior to sitting on the Golan Heights).

8. Gambling for very high stakes

The crux of Israeli grand strategic issues can be summed up in the form of a harsh gamble with history: What Israeli steps to advance peace reduce the probability of future violence directed against it by more than they increase the costs to Israel if such violence does take place? Alternative long term futures of the Palestinian entity can be charted and some of the variables influencing their realization probabilities can be identified, providing policy instruments for Israel to use now to improve the expected policy-gambling outcomes. Advanced methods for dealing with radical uncertainties and for upgrading policy-gambling may be missing everywhere. But whereas all options in the Oslo Process constitute gambles for high stakes, some may be better than others – by providing more elasticity, leaving in the hands of Israel relatively robust options for coping with a wide range of contingencies, etc.

9. Ability to cope with tragic value choices

All grand strategic thinking is basically instrumental, serving sets of values. , Israel is unique in being a highly ideological democracy, with many values beyond and sometimes above "security" serving as goals for strategic thinking. This is dramatically the case with the Oslo Process, where different value commitments to settlement in Judea and Samaria as core areas of the Promised Land lead to opposite conclusions, even when security considerations are shared. strategic thinking in Israel must engage in much value analysis with, inter alia, the help of methods borrowed from moral philosophy and moral reasoning usually ignored in strategic analysis and planning. Thus, the distinction between settling all of the Promised Land as a conditional duty or as an unconditional duty is crucial for making the moral choices central to the Oslo Process from an Israeli-Zionist perspective.

10. Linking Policy with politics and society

Grand strategic thinking in Israel must link politics with policy, including political feasibility mapping and upgrading in planning, with a search for ways to rebuild democratic consensus. Societal cleavages caused by the Peace Process, including acts of extremism, illustrate social costs associated with the tragic choices facing Israel in relation to the Oslo Process, with a high probability of further traumatization. Therefore, grand strategic thinking must take into account broad societal dimensions of major options and develop ideas for coping with various forms of societal crises caused by politico-security choices and events.

11. Option creativity

The State of Israel today has powerful capacities which in principle provide a large space for viable options, providing much scope for "throwing surprises at history." The difficulties of critical grand strategic choices facing Israel urgently require additional options making creativity a main requirement of high quality grand strategic thinking; for example, in respect to the future of Jerusalem, where political, legal and societal creativity to "invent" an option meeting both Israeli and Palestinian and Arab-Islamic minimum demands is essential, otherwise the Oslo Process as a whole may prove in the long run to have been a very grave Israeli mistake.

IV. Recommendations

Israel is the only democratic country in the world the very existence of which is still regarded as illegitimate by powerful countries within striking distance. Therefore, superior grand strategic thinking is for Israel not a matter of luxury or desirability, but may well be essential for long-term survival.

  1. Setting up a professional interdisciplinary National Security Staff in the Prime Minister’s office.
    Ten professionals who combine multidisciplinary knowledge and experience with Israeli politico-security affairs. This staff should cooperate closely with other units in the Prime Minister's Office, but be separate from them, so as to assure maximum professional independence while serving the Prime Minister and, through him, the Cabinet.

  2. Redesign of policy planning units in the defense establishment and other salient ministries.

    • Setting up a small politico-strategic planning staff attached to the Minister of Defense.

    • Upgrading strategic planning professionalism in relevant units, with advanced training and adjusted rotation and career patterns.

    • Strengthening long-term grand strategic assessment in the various intelligence units.

    • Close liaison with the Prime Minister's Office on the professional as well as the political level, to assure adequate time to apply grand strategic thinking to the real decision agenda of the Prime Minister while taking into account his overall policies and value priorities.

    Establishment and upgrading of strategic planning units is also essential in other ministries relevant for grand strategic thinking.

  3. Strengthening and supplementing grand policy mini “think tanks”.
    A staff of about thirty full time professionals is a minimum for in-depth long-term study and analysis of major issues faced by Israel. Such an organization would also develop suitable methods and methodologies and provide professional on-the-job training, thus upgrading grand strategic thinking in government as well as in non-governmental bodies. Setting up a full scale Israeli Institute for Policy R&D is, therefore, a major recommendation.

  4. Advanced training and development of grand strategic thinking and planning professionals
    Advanced training and development of grand strategic thinking professionals is a top priority. Ideally, one graduate university center in Israel should develop suitable degree and non-degree programs, including intensive courses to upgrade professionals in government. If this should prove impossible because of difficulties in achieving inter-university cooperation in Israel, then suitable courses should be given in the defense establishment and, perhaps, by one or another of the grand strategic mini think tanks.

  5. Deepen grand strategic thinking in policy elites, such as at a National Policy College.
    Four to six-week residential study "retreats" on national security issues are recommended as a preferred way to deepen understanding and upgrade discourse. Participants should come from different segments of the Israeli policy elite.

  6. Augmenting public discourse with in-depth studies and briefings, inter alia via public mass media.
    Public discourse as a whole needs to be improved. In an epoch of multi-channel television and populistic mass politics, as increasingly characterizes Israel too, this is not an easy task but public opinion is an essential basis and serves as a strong constraint on governmental action, and more could and must be done.

  7. Setting up and running of a Crisis Management Center for the Prime Minister, to enable better real time political direction of security operations.
    True, crises are the rule in the Middle East and serve as a main politico-security decision making context for Israel. All the more so, grand strategic thinking is required – to serve as the basis for improvisations directed at utilizing crises to advance the long term interests and values of Israel. So structures and processes relating actual crisis decision making by the highest political level to grand strategic thinking are essential. It is essential to design, build up and run a crisis management center for the Prime Minister enabling him to base critical improvisations in compressed time in the face of often unpredictable harsh events on grand strategic thinking.