After the Gulf War:
Israeli Defense and its Security Policy

Address by Lt.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Rabin MK at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies Bar-Ilan University, June 10, 1991*

I wish to speak about the directions that Israel ought take in security and defense policy, not about security doctrine. Specifically, I wish to relate to the role of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in fulfilling the objectives of a defined security policy.

It is true that a significant change has occurred in the international arena; the Gulf War is a prime example. We would never have believed, one year ago, that the scenario for the next Middle East war would involve: the military force of one of the two countries most hostile to Israel being crippled by a foreign power; advance warning of five months time; and Israel suffering only negligible damage, without a spilt drop of IDF blood. I assume that if someone had predicted this he would have been told to "go sleep-it- off," or sent to a sanitarium. Israeli security policy never has been designed to take into account such a scenario; nor was the IDF built for such an eventuality. Nor is this the scenario for which Israel must prepare and adopt a security policy.

In determining security policy, one should ask: against what and for what? What are the likely threats? What is required? Beyond the response to menace, one should ask: what can be gained via Israel's military power?

Threats as a whole, today and in other periods, may be divided into two types. On one level is the existential threat -- that imperils the very existence of the State of Israel. Such peril might be posed by the armies of Arab states, led by leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez el-Assad, or other figures that might confront us in future. Arab armies are our major security concern.

A second level of 'threat' is that known in the IDF as "current security," involving challenges to the daily life of Israelis. In past, this term referred to border clashes with Arab armies, incidents which are mostly a thing of the past. Today, "current security" relates to Palestinian terrorist incursions aimed at targets in Israel (and at Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide), and to fundamentalist Islamic terrorism and the Intifada.

These two types of terrorism are no more than a nuisance. Despite the pain and the continuous assaults, terrorist attacks have never been, are not, and never will constitute an existential threat to the State of Israel. Terrorism always has been, remains and shall ever be the weapon of the weak.

Therefore, when speaking of security policy today, one should focus on the existential dangers and not on "current security." It is noteworthy that about 90 percent of our military budget is allocated to defense against 'existential' threat. I will therefore address Israeli security policy vis-a-vis the existential threats posed to Israel.

I still remember such discussions during the first years of the IDF in 1955, and they should be held today as well. The primary question in the formulation of Israeli security policy is this: Under the given situation of Arab-Israeli conflict, is it possible for the State of Israel to adopt a security policy that seeks one great war that shall be "the end of all wars," and in this way realize the Clausewitzian axiom that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means?

When one's objective is to destroy the enemy's forces, one must ask "for what purpose?" In order to impose your political will! A case in point was World War II. The Allies defined the war's objective as the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperialist Japan -- and they attained this objective. They then implemented radical reforms: MacArthur implemented social reform in Japan, the Allies divided Germany and West Germany underwent a transformation, as did Italy.

The first question that requires a clear-cut answer in the formulation of the Israeli security policy: is the result attained by the Allies a feasible alternative in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Realistically, can we undergo five years of economic austerity, and devote the national budget to an IDF military build-up -- and then conquer the Middle East? Are we capable of bringing Arab nations to a state of affairs comparable to that of the Axis powers at the end of World War II? This question must be answered before a security policy can be formulated.

We must strive to defend the state and attain a solution to the conflict with our neighbors, but there are great differences in the international situation pertaining in World War II and the international situation today of Israel. I once said that between the Allies, the Axis and the "Almighty" there wasn't any entity that could have restricted the actions of the Allies. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are super-powers and international actors that stand between the Arab countries at war with Israel and the "Almighty."

Furthermore, in the situation that exists today Israel cannot formulate a security policy involving the imposition of preferred peace arrangements following upon the defeat or conquest of Arab countries. This is not a pleasant situation -- but it is a given! I repeat and further emphasize: without agreeing on an approach in this regard, a security policy cannot be fashioned. And therefore, we cannot set for ourselves far-reaching political goals such as the imposition of peace as a security policy.

I ask myself a second question: is there any territorial target that justifies the initiation of war? I am speaking of a preemptive attack, of a war that is planned several months in advance, a year or two years in advance -- a deliberate attack aimed at achieving a territorial goal. I believe that we have more than enough land, and we assuredly have no need of any more land; no territorial needs that could justify a war initiative.

The third possible objective for an Israeli-initiated war might be the destruction of an Arab military force when it appears that its military build-up constitutes a danger to us. Perhaps, then, war is worthwhile -- to destroy the adversary's military power and thus prevent the risk of a future war.

We have learned the hard way from previous wars -- irrespective of their origins -- that Arab armies undergo a rapid refurbishing of their military. To-date, experience has shown that following each war, Arab countries have obtained armaments in greater quantities and improved quality. I cannot remember a war where the country defeated by us did not subsequently improve the quantity and quality of its arms.

Thus, Israel has no reason to adopt a policy that involves the initiation of war, whether for far- reaching political and territorial objectives, nor for the destruction of enemy forces. And if we can identify no significant objective in initiation of war, then the best course for Israel is the prevention of war.

It's worth remembering that there are no more "Six Day Wars," neither in duration nor in casualties; nor, in my opinion, in political results. Today's quantities of Mideast arms, and their destructive power and range -- all will make future military conflict painfully expensive and costly. Therefore, as Minister of Defense, I considered the prevention of war as the test of our security policy; in addition to being able to rapidly and forcefully end any war forced upon us. What does it mean to be "able to rapidly and forcefully end any war?" I will deal with this later.

The bottom line is that this is a defensive strategy. The question is how to prevent war -- conventional war -- between Arab countries and ourselves. Simply put, we are speaking of deterrent power. Has Israel's deterrence policy succeeded? The fact that wars have occurred shows that it did not succeed completely, for if this were so we would have prevented each war. In my opinion, no complete and guaranteed deterrence of conventional wars is possible. We can only strive for the most convincing decisive victory should deterrence fail. How can the Arab ruler of a country such as Syria be deterred? Can we always deter him? I think not.

Deterrence is not attainable if the Syrian ruler (who is the major threat today) believes that the worst that might happen to him in war is that he will fail to attain his objectives. Yet, several wars with Syria have already shown that deterrence is possible within the conventional war framework. If this same Arab ruler learns to fear the starting of war because he knows that his armies will be crushed; that he will suffer significant collateral damage; and that his own strategic installations will be threatened -- he will think twice before starting armed conflict.

In other words, defensive capabilities are not a deterrent factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Only the power to defeat an enemy's forces and to thwart his strategic objectives, to the point where his regime is at risk, makes deterrence possible. If this is the case, and if we mean to prevent war, we have no objectives that justify an Israeli war initiative!

We are aware of the terrible price that war entails, and therefore deterrence is preferable. Concurrently, however, we must keep in mind that successful deterrence is not assured; thus we require the power that can secure a decisive victory. What is victory in the context of Arab-Israeli conflict? Victory requires the defeat of the attacking power to the point that it requests a cease-fire on the spot; whereby the enemy has not conquered any of our lands; and where we have conquered lands that were under enemy control, and thereby we constitute a strategic threat to the enemy.

I am aware that such a 'mathematical' equation cannot easily be applied in every situation, along territorial lines; but this is our problem -- there are no easy solutions. A situation where the enemy requests a cease-fire on the spot, where most of his army is destroyed and where we hold the lands or threaten the enemy's capital city -- this is an Israeli victory.

How can this be attained? Israel maintains a defensive strategy designed to deter. If this fails, decisive victory is required (in the manner I have defined). This defeat can be attained by an army that is powerfully offensive in character, and is capable of reversing the war from defensive to offensive action, transferring the fighting to the enemy's territory, and attaining his decisive defeat as quickly as possible. We require a powerful tactical air force, armored forces, sophisticated weapons, supporting units to secure the naval arena, and additional forces to secure other arenas. An offensive military force fulfills two missions: it serves as both a deterrent force, and as a force to attain decisive victory in the event that deterrence fails.

I also believe that the IDF plays a part in the promotion of peace. Through military power, Arab rulers can be persuaded that they are incapable of attaining their goals by way of military force. The IDF is called upon to propel Arab-Israeli conflict from the battlefield to the negotiating table, under conditions that are favorable to Israel. In my opinion, no Arab ruler seriously will consider the peace process as long as he still can toy with the idea of achieving more by way of violence.

As for the Gulf War: When I was last in the US, I was asked to explain the differences in US and Israeli combat styles. Israel and the IDF care deeply for the lives of Israeli soldiers and citizens. The American army conducted a remarkable war in the Gulf. The air force was utilized to the utmost, resulting in the decisive defeat of the enormous Iraqi force with minimum casualties -- something we never managed to achieve in any of our wars. This is indeed true.

Israel has paid a price in its wars and may be forced to absorb high costs of war in future, because of two factors:

Consider, for example, the American air attacks in the Gulf -- 45 days of bombing. I have heard some people in the air force and in other corps discussing the inaccuracy of these bombing raids. One must understand that the US has its own methods, working gradually -- from limited to greater accuracy, while saving equipment and human life. According to my calculations, more than one thousand US fighter jets were involved in the attacks. The US lost close to 40 planes, which is about 3.5 percent of their air force, within 45 days. During the Six Day War, we lost about 12 percent of our jet fighters. During the Yom Kippur War, which lasted 18 days, we lost about 100 planes, equaling approximately one-third of our air force. Israel is forced to live with such differentials.

Yet another reality recently driven home to Israelis -- which we've known about for more than a decade -- is the missile issue. The Arab countries have learned a few lessons of their own. Following the Six Day War, Arab leaders reached the conclusion that they had little chance of attaining air superiority against the Israeli air force, neither in aerial combat nor in tactical battlefield support. Our first indications of this came during the War of Attrition, and even more so during the Yom Kippur War, when Arab armies extensively employed surface-to-air missile batteries. To be frank, we did not emerge victorious in these missile-versus-air force engagements. In addition to the utility of surface-to-air missiles, Arab states reached the conclusion after the Yom Kippur War that they ought to develop surface-to-surface missiles too. They understood the advantage of hitting the Israeli home front, with its multi-fold targets.

In the late 1970s we picked-up evidence that Arab countries were seeking to develop surface- to-surface missiles capabilities. Today, we know that hostile Arab states intend to attack us, in the next war, on three fronts simultaneously: on the battlefield, at our rear logistical and support bases, and at our civilian population centers.

I remember a discussion held in 1955 in the IDF general staff, during a presentation to David Ben-Gurion, then prime minister and minister of defense. He asked about the issue of home front defenses. Army officers replied, as they are prone to, that it wouldn't be the end of the world if several bombs (today - - several missiles) were to fall on civilian targets. Ben-Gurion angrily responded: "You weren't in the Blitz on London. I was! I do not want the Israeli home front exposed, in any degree, to that which the British home front endured." He never explained why.

Ben-Gurion's conditioned Israel's participation in the British-French action against Egypt in 1956 on the arrival of two French squadrons to defend Israeli airspace. Ben-Gurion was not dissuaded by the protests of Israeli air force commanders, who considered this a vote of no-confidence in their abilities, as did many of us in the general staff. He insisted that without the two French squadrons, pilots, planes and all, our battalions would not parachute into the Mitla pass in Sinai. He also demanded that anti-aircraft air defense units be stationed in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

I do not wish in public forum to dwell on the vulnerability of the Israeli home front -- as it emerges from the 45 days of the Gulf war. I do not wish to address the question whether things might have been different. Was the correct policy adopted? Did the entire country have to be paralyzed for 45 days because of the missile threat? The fact that surface-to-surface missiles with conventional warheads, possibly tipped with chemical warheads (I shall not mention other possibilities), can be fired against us, requires a basic examination of the nature of Arab-Israeli war.

The Iraq-US confrontation has little relevance for, or can teach us little about, the Arab-Israeli conflict. I do not believe that Israel's deterrent ability was harmed. Is there any relevance in what Israel might have done to Saddam Hussein, during a conflict between Hussein and the USA and its allies?!

These are the basic issues I have attempted to define: the IDF's purpose, the outlines of Israeli security policy, what is this policy meant to prevent, and for what we should prepare in the event that war is imposed on Israel. The army should be offensive in character. As for the home front: the issues should be examined anew.

Translated and edited by David M. Weinberg