The Bennett defense doctrine

If Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has his way, a fifth pillar might soon be added to Israel’s national defense concept: “Preemption.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border  (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett during a recent visit to the Syrian border
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father, took a leave of absence from his duties as the country’s prime minister in 1953 and moved South, to his rickety home perched over Nahal Zin in the desert kibbutz of Sde Boker.
Israel was five years old, but Ben-Gurion wasn’t sure it would survive another war. The Jewish state had barely made it through the War of Independence in 1948, when five Arab armies converged on the nascent state. Another war of that kind, he knew, could not be tolerated.
Over a period of seven weeks, Ben-Gurion sat and wrote. When he was done, the document he had drafted would become known as Israel’s national defense strategy, which rests on three pillars: Deterrence, Early Warning and Decisive Victory. Go into any senior IDF commander’s office and the list can usually be seen in a framed document hanging on the wall.
For years the document remained untouched, until Dan Meridor, a veteran minister and member of Knesset, was tasked in 2006 with drafting an updated defense concept. While the 250-page document he wrote was never officially adopted, one of its main tenets was to add a fourth pillar to Ben-Gurion’s three. That pillar is “Defense,” a reference to Israel’s need to produce defensive systems that can intercept enemy missiles, like the Arrow and Iron Dome, as well as build bomb shelters to protect civilians throughout the country.
If Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has his way, a fifth pillar -  based on what has been happening over the last few weeks – might soon be added to Israel’s national defense concept: “Preemption,” basically the need to take preemptive action to stop an enemy’s military buildup.
It’s an interesting idea. Until now, Israel has historically only taken preemptive action when encountering a threat of a nuclear nature. This was the case in 1981, when Menachem Begin decided to send IAF F-16s to destroy the Osirak reactor that Saddam Hussein was building outside of Baghdad, and in 2007, when Ehud Olmert did the same to the al-Kibar reactor Bashar Assad and North Korea were building in northeastern Syria.
But this was never done when Israel faced a conventional military buildup, or even one of biological or chemical weapons. The IDF closely followed Syria’s chemical weapons program, but never used military force to stop it. The same has happened with Hezbollah’s impressive military buildup since the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.
Before the war, the Iranian-backed terrorist group had about 15,000 rockets, of which 4,300 were fired during the 34 days of fighting. Today, Hezbollah is believed to have amassed over 130,000 missiles and rockets, some capable of striking anywhere in Israel with unprecedented precision and dangerous warheads.
Nevertheless, Israel decided not to go to war to stop it, and not to attack targets in Lebanon. The IDF occasionally stopped an arms shipment – mostly at sea – but for all those it stopped, far more seem to have gotten through.
This scenario seems to be exactly what Bennett wants to avoid in Syria. As reported this week by The Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent Anna Ahronheim, Bennett is working to have the IDF escalate operations against Iran in Syria with the aim of persuading the Islamic Republic to leave the war-torn country in the near future. Earlier this month, Bennett warned that Israel will turn Syria into Iran’s Vietnam, a costly military quagmire, from which he hopes Tehran will decide to vacate and cut its losses.
Bennett’s calculation seems to run like this: Yes, Israel has reportedly struck hundreds of targets in Syria in recent years (as the IDF has openly admitted), but the desired result has yet to be achieved and Iran is still entrenching itself.
If nothing more is done to stop Iran, it could potentially grow a force in Syria like Hezbollah has grown in Lebanon. If that happens, Israel could find itself facing an enemy that it will hesitate to act against.
This does not mean that there isn’t danger now in escalating operations against Iran. It is possible that if Israel starts attacking more frequently and aggressively, Iran will retaliate against Israel with a cruise missile-drone attack, like the one it launched against the Saudi oil facility in September.
But Bennett seems to believe that the risk is worth taking now as opposed to later, when the threat will be greater. That is called preemption.
A few weeks ago, a group of US Air Force pilots came to Israel. This was before the Blue Flag exercise in November that saw the arrival of over 100 aircraft from across Europe and the United States.
The pilots, about 10 of them, fly F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the new fifth-generation stealth jet made by Lockheed Martin. Israel today has only 20 such aircraft, with orders in place to receive another 30 over the next four years. The US Air Force, on the other hand, has dozens more, with a fleet expected to reach over 1,000. Nevertheless, the US pilots had come to Israel to learn. Why? The answer is simple: while Israel might have less aircraft, it uses them more.
The IAF revealed in July that it has been using the F-35 – known in Hebrew as the Adir – in combat and on multiple fronts, with the general assumption that they have been used against Iranian and Syrian targets. The revelation came less than a year after the Air Force publicized a photo showing an F-35 flying over Beirut, likely part of an attempt to bolster deterrence in the face of Iranian aggression throughout the region.
“We attacked twice in the Middle East using the F-35 – we are the first in the world to do so,” Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin, the IAF commander, said at the time. “The Israeli Air Force is a pioneer and a world leader in operating air power.”
This status of being a pioneer is exactly why the US pilots came to Israel. They want to learn from their Israeli counterparts who are flying the aircraft – known for its stealth capabilities and hi-tech sensors that improve situational awareness – more than anyone else. There is little doubt in America, for example, that if Israel is attacked by Iran with drones and cruise missiles, F-35s will play a role in any Israeli retaliation.
This is important to keep in mind as the defense establishment finalizes its procurement plans for the coming year, and as the country enters its second year of political paralysis, triggered by the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last December.
Like every other government office, the paralysis has not skipped over the Defense Ministry or the IDF. Starting January 1, Israel will no longer have a state budget, even as regional threats are growing. The IDF, for example, faces shortages when it comes to precision-guided munitions, interceptors for the Iron Dome, and aircraft.
The mechanical malfunction that brought down a Sikorsky CH-53 transport helicopter recently – thankfully, no one was hurt – is just another illustration of the aging fleet that is still flying and desperately needs to be replaced. The Air Force is waiting for approval for its new shopping list, which includes more F-35s, F-15s, transport aircraft, helicopters and refueling tankers.
Some of this can be approved without a government, and some cannot. Some budgets need Knesset approval, for example, which is not easy to obtain these days when the politicians are more divided than ever.
This paralysis doesn’t just affect the defense establishment. It crosses ministries and government offices, and impacts hospitals, schools, roadwork and more.
It doesn’t have to be this way but it is. The problem is that the Middle East is not waiting for Israel to pass a budget. With or without one, the challenges are only growing.