The myth of Israel’s strategic genius

Many supporters of Israel will not criticize its behavior, even when it is engaged in brutal and misguided operations like the recent onslaught on Gaza. In addition to their understandable reluctance to say anything that might aid Israel’s enemies, this tendency is based in part on the belief that Israel’s political and military leaders are ...

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Many supporters of Israel will not criticize its behavior, even when it is engaged in brutal and misguided operations like the recent onslaught on Gaza. In addition to their understandable reluctance to say anything that might aid Israel’s enemies, this tendency is based in part on the belief that Israel’s political and military leaders are exceptionally smart and thoughtful strategists who understand their threat environment and have a history of success against their adversaries. If so, then it makes little sense for outsiders to second-guess them.

This image of Israeli strategic genius has been nurtured by Israelis over the years and seems to be an article of faith among neoconservatives and other hardline supporters of Israel in the United States. It also fits nicely with the wrongheaded but still popular image of Israel as the perennial David facing a looming Arab Goliath; in this view, only brilliant strategic thinkers could have consistently overcome the supposedly formidable Arab forces arrayed against them.

The idea that Israelis possess some unique strategic acumen undoubtedly reflects a number of past military exploits, including the decisive victories in the 1948 War of Independence, the rapid conquest of the Sinai in 1956, the daredevil capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the stunning Israeli triumph at the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War, and the intrepid hostage rescue at Entebbe in 1976.

These tactical achievements are part of a larger picture, however, and that picture is not a pretty one. Israel has also lost several wars in the past — none of them decisively, of course — and its ability to use force to achieve larger strategic objectives has declined significantly over time. This is why Israelis frequently speak of the need to restore their “deterrent”; they are aware that occasional tactical successes have not led to long-term improvements in their overall security situation. The assault on Gaza is merely the latest illustration of this worrisome tendency.

What does the record show?

Back in 1956, Israel, along with Britain and France, came up with a harebrained scheme to seize the Suez Canal and topple Nasser’s regime in Egypt. (This was after an Israeli raid on an Egyptian army camp in Gaza helped convince Nasser to obtain arms from the Soviet Union). Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initially hoped that Israel would be allowed to conquer and absorb the West Bank, parts of the Sinai, and portions of Lebanon, but Britain and France quickly scotched that idea. The subsequent attack was a military success but a strategic failure: the invaders were forced to disgorge the lands they seized while Nasser’s prestige soared at home and across the Arab world, fueling radicalism and intensifying anti-Israel sentiments throughout the region. The episode led Ben-Gurion to conclude that Israel should forego additional attempts to expand its borders — which is why he opposed taking the West Bank in 1967 — but his successors did not follow his wise advice.

Ten years later, Israel’s aggressive policies toward Syria and Jordan helped precipitate the crisis that led to the Six Day War. The governments of Egypt, Syria, the USSR and the United States also bear considerable blame for that war, though it was Israel’s leaders who chose to start it, even though they recognized that their Arab foes knew they were no match for the IDF and did not intend to attack Israel.  More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a “greater Israel.” Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel’s settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as “a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.

With Israeli forces occupying the Sinai peninsula, Egypt launched the so-called War of Attrition in October 1968 in an attempt to get it back. The result was a draw on the battlefield and the two sides eventually reached a ceasefire agreement in August 1970. The war was a strategic setback for Israel, however, because Egypt and its Soviet patron used the ceasefire to complete a missile shield along the Suez Canal that could protect Egyptian troops if they attacked across the Canal to regain the Sinai. American and Israeli leaders did not recognize this important shift in the balance of power between Israel and Egypt and remained convinced that Egypt had no military options. As a result, they ignored Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures and left him little choice but to use force to try to dislodge Israel from the Sinai. Israel then failed to detect Egypt and Syria’s mobilization in early October 1973 and fell victim to one of the most successful surprise attacks in military history. The IDF eventually rallied and triumphed, but the costs were high in a war that might easily have been avoided.

Israel’s next major misstep was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion was the brainchild of hawkish Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who had concocted a grandiose scheme to destroy the PLO and gain a free hand to incorporate the West Bank in “Greater Israel” and turn Jordan into “the” Palestinian state. It was a colossal strategic blunder: the PLO leadership escaped destruction and Israel’s bombardment of Beirut and its complicity in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila were widely and rightly condemned. And after initially being greeted as liberators by the Shiite population of southern Lebanon, Israel’s prolonged and heavy-handed occupation helped create Hezbollah, which soon became a formidable adversary as well as an avenue for Iranian influence on Israel’s northern border. Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah and eventually withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, having in effect been driven out by Hezbollah’s increasingly effective resistance.  Invading Lebanon not only failed to solve Israel’s problem with the Palestinians, it created a new enemy that still bedevils Israel today.

In the late 1980s, Israel helped nurture Hamas — yes, the same organization that the IDF is bent on destroying today — as part of its long-standing effort to undermine Yasser Arafat and Fatah and keep the Palestinians divided. This decision backfired too, because Arafat eventually recognized Israel and agreed to negotiate a two-state solution, while Hamas emerged as a new and dangerous adversary that has refused to recognize Israel’s existence and to live in peace with the Jewish state.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 offered an unprecedented chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, but Israel’s leaders failed to seize the moment. Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu all refused to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state — even Rabin never spoke publicly about allowing the Palestinians to have a state of their own — and Ehud Barak’s belated offer of statehood at the 2000 Camp David summit did not go far enough. As Barak’s own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later admitted, “if I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well.” Meanwhile, the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled during the Oslo period (1993-2001), and the Israelis built some 250 miles of connector roads in the West Bank.  Palestinian leaders and U.S. officials made their own contributions to Oslo’s failure, but Israel had clearly squandered what was probably the best opportunity it will ever have to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Barak also derailed a peace treaty with Syria in early 2000 that appeared to be a done deal, at least to President Bill Clinton, who had helped fashion it. But when public opinion polls suggested that the Israeli public might not support the deal, the Israeli Prime Minister got cold feet and the talks collapsed.

More recently, U.S. and Israeli miscalculations have gone hand-in-hand. In the wake of September 11, neoconservatives in the United States, who had been pushing for war against Iraq since early 1998, helped convince President Bush to attack Iraq as part of a larger strategy of “regional transformation.” Israeli officials were initially opposed to this scheme because they wanted Washington to go after Iran instead, but once they understood that Iran and Syria were next on the administration’s hit list they backed the plan enthusiastically. Indeed, prominent Israelis like Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres helped sell the war in the United States, while Prime Minister Sharon and his chief aides put pressure on Washington to make sure that Bush didn’t lose his nerve and leave Saddam standing. The result? A costly quagmire for the United States and a dramatic improvement in Iran’s strategic position.  Needless to say, these developments were hardly in Israel’s strategic interest.

The next failed effort was then-Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw all of Israel’s settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Although Israel and its supporters in the West portrayed this move as a gesture towards peace, “unilateralism” was in fact part of a larger effort to derail the so-called Road Map, freeze the peace process, and consolidate Israeli control over the West Bank, thereby putting off the prospect of a Palestinian state “indefinitely.” The withdrawal was completed successfully, but Sharon’s attempt to impose peace terms on the Palestinians failed completely. Fenced in by the Israelis, the Palestinians in Gaza began firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli towns and then Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. This event reflected its growing popularity in the face of Fatah’s corruption and Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, but Jerusalem and Washington refused to accept the election results and decided instead to try to topple Hamas. This was yet another error: Hamas eventually ousted Fatah from Gaza and its popularity has continued to increase.

The Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 revealed the deficiencies of Israel’s strategic thinking with particular clarity. A cross-border raid by Hezbollah provoked an Israeli offensive intended to destroy Hezbollah’s large missile inventory and compel the Lebanese government to crack down on Hezbollah itself. However worthy these goals might have been, Israel’s strategy was doomed to fail. Air strikes could not eliminate Hezbollah’s large and well-hidden arsenal and bombing civilian areas in Lebanon merely generated more anger at Israel and raised Hezbollah’s standing among the Lebanese population and in the Arab and Islamic world as well. Nor could a belated ground attack fix the problem, as the IDF could hardly accomplish in a few weeks what it had failed to do between 1982 and 2000. Plus, the Israeli offensive was poorly planned and poorly executed. It was equally foolish to think that Lebanon’s fragile central government could rein in Hezbollah; if that were possible, the governing authorities in Beirut would have done so long before. It is no surprise that the Winograd Commission (an official panel of inquiry established to examine Israel’s handling of the war) harshly criticized Israel’s leaders for their various strategic errors.

Finally, a similar strategic myopia is apparent in the assault on Gaza. Israeli leaders initially said that their goal was to inflict enough damage on Hamas so it could no longer threaten Israel with rocket attacks. But they now concede that Hamas will neither be destroyed nor disarmed by their attacks, and instead say that more extensive monitoring will prevent rocket parts and other weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. This is a vain hope, however. As I write this, Hamas has not accepted a ceasefire and is still firing rockets; even if it does accept a ceasefire soon, rocket and mortar fire are bound to resume at some point in the future. On top of that, Israel’s international image has taken a drubbing, Hamas is probably more popular, and moderate leaders like Mahmoud Abbas have been badly discredited. A two-state solution — which is essential if Israel wishes to remain Jewish and democratic and to avoid becoming an apartheid state — is farther away than ever. The IDF performed better in Gaza than it did in Lebanon, largely because Hamas is a less formidable foe than Hezbollah. But this does not matter: the war against Hamas is still a strategic failure. And to have inflicted such carnage on the Palestinians for no lasting strategic gain is especially reprehensible.

In virtually all of these episodes — and especially those after 1982 — Israel’s superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters — Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu — are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?

No country is immune from folly, of course, and Israel’s adversaries have committed plenty of reprehensible acts and made plenty of mistakes themselves. Egypt’s Nasser played with fire in 1967 and got badly burnt; King Hussein’s decision to enter the Six Day War was a catastrophic blunder that cost Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders badly miscalculated and committed unjustifiable and brutal acts on numerous occasions. Americans made grave mistakes in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, the French blundered in Indochina and Algeria, the British failed at Suez and Gallipoli, and the Soviets lost badly in Afghanistan. Israel is no different than most powerful states in this regard: sometimes it does things that are admirable and wise, and at other times it pursues policies that are foolish and cruel.

The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces.  In fact, Israel’s strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s — beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel’s friends — both Jewish and gentile — to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem’s actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.

Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action.  Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress — speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that’s unlikely to happen, because Israel’s supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel’s actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.

AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.