The Imperative of Integrated Israeli Power


Any defense doctrine must start with one basic question: what is the objective?

On this there was rare agreement between two of Zionism’s founding fathers, David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Ben-Gurion based the defense strategy document that he submitted to the government in 1953 on Jabotinsky’s well-known “Iron Wall” essay from 1923. They both stated the basic principle that remains the cornerstone of Israeli strategy: Israel must be so strong that its enemies know in advance that they will lose any war against it.

Israel’s strength must be disproportionate to the challenges it faces, and its enemies need to understand this so that they are sufficiently deterred. Any other situation will encourage our enemies — whether state actors or terrorist organizations — to test Israel’s strength. If foes try to test that strength, Israel must be strong enough to win any war or military operation, within a reasonable timeframe, while demonstrating complete superiority.

And if Israel hopes for comity and cooperation with its neighbors, that too requires superior strength. Israel’s military superiority must be even more pronounced if it aspires for a lasting agreement with its neighbors. Even if someone believes that an agreement with the Palestinians is the solution to all of Israel’s security problems, it is worth remembering the sober warning of the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror from July 2015 when he wrote for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies:

No agreement Israel reaches and signs will have any practical significance for the world being established in the Middle East unless Israel has in its hands the power to defend and enforce it.

Only such strength — decisive, intimidating strength, along with the will to use it — will bring us to the point where Israel will not have to use it, in other words, to the point where my country can secure its future without having to fight.

In order to sustain this strength, we must understand its components. A strong Israel is not just a military concept. Military power is part of Israel’s strength, but it is not enough to achieve the objective. As Ben-Gurion stated, “Our security is not dependent only on the army … non-military factors will be decisive, no less than military factors.” A strong Israel is one that thrives economically, enjoys social cohesion and a shared ethos, is bolstered by undisputed strategic alliances and international backing, and boasts a decisive qualitative and technological edge. These are the basic conditions. Without them Israel will not be able to be strong enough to prevent wars, win them if they break out, or secure peace.

As such, the Israeli prime minister should connect three forces: Israel’s military strength, its socio-economic strength, and its political strength. Indeed, creating this integrated power is the central role of the prime minister of Israel. The same goes for any national leader that is, like Israel, democratic and Western. The pressures of being a modern “island” in the heart of a faltering, turbulent Middle East make this task only more urgent.

Developing integrated power is not a simple task. The need to control the different forces driving the state requires judicious composure, a deep sense of responsibility, a broad view of the current geopolitical map, and effective governance that is able to devise and promote policy.

The Elements of Integrated Power

In order to clarify the importance of integrated power in managing the country and in strengthening security, a micro to macro perspective is in order, from one specific defense procurement to its consequences for Israel’s overall strength. Consider the following:

In June 2016, the unveiling ceremony for the Israeli Air Force’s first Adir aircraft was held at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Texas. The Adir — known to most others as the F-35 — is a multirole stealth plane that can reach any location in the Middle East from Israel. Aside from its stealth capabilities, its human-machine interface is the first and only of its kind. The Adir represents a technological leap forward. Even though the aircraft is American, the F-35 is also a source of Israeli pride, as some of its parts were developed and built in Israel. For example, the “smart helmet” used by the pilots was developed by the Israeli company Elbit. Israel Aerospace Industries produces the wings for some of the planes.

This plane, and especially the way it came to be in Israel’s hands, sums up not only Israel’s military and technological capabilities, but also the three-pronged model of integrated power.

First, behind the acquisition stands the strong, consistent doctrine — dating back to the modern origins of Israel and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion — on developing disproportionate strategic power and making clear to its enemies that it will not tolerate existential threats. The corollary to this doctrine is that because Israel is geographically small, it needs to maintain the ability to take the campaign far beyond its borders. This doctrine has dictated the development of the Israeli Air Force and in recent years has also dictated the upgrading of Israel’s naval power. This doctrine has led Israel’s air and naval forces to become the strongest in the region.

Second, Israel’s economic strength enabled it to purchase 33 F-35 aircraft, at a cost of $5.25 billion, as part of a comprehensive deal in which Israel will eventually acquire 50 planes. In order for Israel to continue to sustain its qualitative edge, it must maintain a strong export-oriented economy, based on technology. This requires investments in education and infrastructure, and responsible management of the Israeli economy.

In this context, Israeli civil society must believe that the government has the right motivations and makes decisions in a thorough, judicious manner. Otherwise, such enormous expenses would be hard to justify to citizens who would ask if there are more important investments to make in education and healthcare. The fact that the acquisition of the planes is such a high national priority signifies a sacrifice on the part of the public. Israeli society is willing to make this sacrifice because it trusts that the government understands the ramifications. The trust in government and the existence of a shared ethos are the foundation of civil strength. A divided, conflicted society that lacks agreement on rules and values will not be able to meet the challenges of national security.

Third, Israel’s international standing and the fact that it is considered a responsible and legitimate country enables the purchase of the planes. Israel and Turkey are the only countries in the region that were allowed to purchase the F-35. Despite significant pressure from the American defense industry, the United States refused to sell the aircraft to other countries in the Middle East. The United States trusts that Israel will be a responsible owner and operator of these advanced weapons. This includes avoiding unnecessary military adventures, advance notification of major operations, respect for international law, and adherence to Western norms in military affairs.

Legitimacy and Political Strength

As with military strength and economic strength, Israel’s political strength comprises several elements: political, intelligence, and diplomatic ties; standing in international institutions (the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, NATO, and others); stature in international legal institutions; its image in the media, in social media, in academia, and in public opinion; and personal connections between leaders.

Of all of the arenas tied to Israel’s political standing, the United States is the most important. It is therefore crucial that Israel prevents and avoids fissures in this alliance and maintains its bipartisan standing in Congress. The change of administration in the United States should not make Israelis complacent. Israel’s standing in Washington has suffered in recent years, and this trend must not continue.

This is also the reason that Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot saw fit to define the securing and preservation of Israel’s legitimacy as one of the defense establishment’s top strategic objectives. He understands that Israel’s legitimacy is inextricably linked to its security

Legitimacy is the defense establishment’s main means of persuasion when it, as discussed, seeks to acquire the F-35s (or to convince the United States not to sell them to certain other countries in the region).

Comprehensive Integration

In order to develop and maintain the strength we need, military, socio-economic, and political power must operate together, based on an integrated outlook. This is the difference between a security doctrine (which is the role of the military) and a true national security policy, which is currently lacking. A senior Knesset Member from Yesh Atid, the party I lead, Ofer Shelah wrote in his book, The Courage to Win:

From the political leadership to the IDF’s [Israel Defense Forces] top brass, Israel has difficulty formulating comprehensive definitions, and has even more difficulty acting on them — therefore it prefers not to formulate them at all.

This phenomenon was especially prominent in the summer of 2014, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge without defining the result it wanted to achieve, the exit strategy, or the timeframe. The decision-makers knew that Hamas was embracing what Gabi Siboni called “the victim doctrine” against Israel, meaning that it was interested in drawing out the operation as much as possible in order to place international pressure on Israel and harm its political and economic standing. Nonetheless, those managing the operation, led by the prime minister did not think that they needed to provide the army with a timeframe or a required objective. In their outdated view, while the cannons roar there is no room for economic or political considerations. During the operation, on August 2, the prime minister publicly declared:

Operation Protective Edge is continuing. The IDF is continuing to operate with full strength in order to complete the goals of the operation: The restoration of quiet and the restoration of security for a lengthy period for the citizens of Israel while inflicting significant damage on the terrorist infrastructures.

This decision to let the campaign continue without a set timeframe was not based on professional deliberation. Rather, the working assumption was that a security event can be isolated from its economic and political consequences. This is a mistake. There is no such separation.

Harming Israel’s economy and political standing harms Israel’s security. At the same time, the converse is also true: a strong economy is a basis for security. A technologically advanced defense system cannot exist over time in a country that lags technologically. Without an advanced economy and society, Israel will not have an advanced army.

Is the prime minister the only person who can set in motion the kind of strategic processes that I have described here? The answer is no, but the systems of government cannot operate without leadership that has direction. What does the prime minister need to fulfill Israel’s national missions and overarching objectives and to defend Israeli security from various threats? First of all, the prime minister must have a large staff of talented, committed, and opinionated people who will provide him with the information, analysis, and meticulous staff work that will enable Israel to advance, prosper, and be secure.

The establishment around him must be built in such a way that the set of considerations brought before him is as broad as possible. The key body is the National Security Council. The role of this body is to coordinate the information, input, and staff work for the prime minister and for the cabinet.

Even under optimal conditions, properly analyzing and determining policy in the Middle East is an incomparably complex task. The political and military environment has changed decisively in recent years. We are living in a completely different reality from any of the first six decades of Israel’s existence: Israel’s enemies are no longer hostile states or conventional armies. Instead, we are faced with an age of civil wars and coups, terrorist organizations that are growing more sophisticated while gaining political recognition, cyber warfare and nuclear ambitions of more than one country. Alongside that there is an international campaign to delegitimize Israel through hostile media outlets and radical human rights organizations. In today’s world, there is no longer a clear separation between times of peace and times of war.

Second, the prime minister needs to create a work environment in which the various arms of Israeli defense, security, foreign policy, and the security cabinet are synchronized and complement one another, with economic and social professionals serving crucial roles. For example, the ongoing struggle against sources of funding for Hizballah and Hamas involves the international banking system and agents who specialize in financial crime. The banking system’s series of successes in identifying sources of funding for terrorism and international partnerships, have enabled the filing of lawsuits against terrorist organizations and companies that fund them, through U.S. law. This created significant difficulties for terrorist organizations and forced them to look for complicated sources of funding that do not use banks, which expose them to being tracked. This struggle is far from being over, but this is additional proof that the economy, foreign policy, and law are not separate worlds from the world of security. It is a single complex reality.

Over the course of almost 70 years, Israel’s leaders spoke in terms of an “existential threat.” The great fear was of an army or armies racing toward its borders in order to conquer Israel. No one in the professional echelons uses this terminology today. In the past year alone, those who served most recently as head of the Mossad, IDF chief of staff, and minister of defense strongly emphasized that today “Israel does not face an existential threat.” Instead, there are increasingly large sets of threats from terrorism, the collapsed states in the region, and an escalating delegitimization campaign against Israel. National decision-making has not succeeded in adapting itself to this change. For example, if $10 million a year were invested wisely in Israeli public relations, this could potentially have a major impact among ordinary Egyptians who are hostile toward Israel even after 40 years of peace. $10 million is about 0.0001 percent of Israel’s budget, but in a country like Egypt, it could make a decisive difference.


If the preservation and strengthening of integrated power is the Israeli prime minister’s top priority, he or she must ensure that other interests — less important but more urgent — do not harm Israel’s security. The test of leadership is not just the willingness to provide citizens with what they want, but also the ability to demand responsibility from them. In order for leadership to be able to demand this, it must itself demonstrate responsibility.

The security of Israel five years from now will depend on an entire range of elements uniting as a single force. These factors — economic, social, diplomatic — can interfere with and contradict one another or become force multipliers that enhance our national strength and resilience. The role of the prime minister is to prevent the contradictions and to create the force multipliers. In order to be able to do this and to place Israel in a better situation, integrated power should be at the center of Israel’s national security policy.

Using the integrated power model, we can harness the power of the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet, along with Israel’s economic and political strength and the energy and vision of its citizens, so that Israel can fulfill the overarching goal that has served it since its establishment: to be so strong that its enemies know in advance that they will lose any war against it.


MK Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli security cabinet during 2013-2014, is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services.