The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Netanyahu has developed an explicit doctrine of war avoidance in preparation for total war should Iran achieve nuclear breakout. That explains his many concessions on the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts. Paradoxically, Iran is on the same wavelength in bolstering the missile siege around Israel. Will Netanyahu be flexible to change the doctrine in the event the missile siege around Israel becomes more threatening than the Iranian nuclear threat?

After almost 14 years of Netanyahu at the helm (briefly interrupted by the Bennet-Lapid government), one can speak of the Netanyahu Doctrine.

Its key singular feature is avoidance of war at all costs, save for the direct and all-out confrontation with Iran and its proxies should Iran achieve a nuclear breakout. Netanyahu is all consumed by the worry of Jewish survival. He believes the Jews never succeeded in realizing its ever-present danger in identifying the immediate foe or developing appropriate solutions.

For Netanyahu, it is clear who is the foe that direly threatens the State of Israel and, thus, Jewish survival. The Islamic Republic of Iran is Israel’s nemesis: the possession of nuclear weapons and the ballistic means to launch them serve to achieve Israel’s destruction, and the rhetoric of its leaders is absolute proof of Iran’s intentions.

Given the centrality of this proposition, Netanyahu tries at all costs to avoid being waylaid by the lesser threats facing Israel to maintain the singular focus on Iran.

That is why he hesitates to concede to threats from the Palestinian arena. One watched with exasperation how Netanyahu, after three bouts of confrontation with Hamas in 2008, 2012, and 2014, invited Qatari intervention to achieve stability on the southern front. This despite the victories of successive rounds of confrontation in creating not only long-term deterrence – quiet prevailed for more than three and a half years – but also perhaps the mindset of Hamas leaders in ways that echoed the achievements of mutual rounds of violence between Israel and the Arab states, or even with Fatah and the PA. Instead, Qatari dollars were used to buy peace, knowing that some of those funds financed the military buildup of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Only the centrality of the Netanyahu Doctrine can explain how, in the face of riots and lynching in 2021 by Israel’s Arab citizens, mainly but hardly exclusively in the mixed towns, and of Hamas threats and actions did he scrap the annual flag-waving procession on Jerusalem Day. This concession did not prevent either the bout of violence with Hamas or the continuation of widespread Arab violence within the Green Line. Paradoxically, the Bennet-Lapid government did not give in to pressure the following year, allowing the flag-waving procession to take place, which was followed by the waning of Palestinian violence.

That is also why Netanyahu’s chief domestic concern impinging on foreign policy was to rein in the Right over settlements. Most of the years of Netanyahu’s rule were characterized by low level building construction in settlements. Politically, he achieved this by sopping the votes on the Right only to veer toward the center-left in forming the government after elections to cancel the pressures of the Israeli Right.

Netanyahu continued limiting confrontation with Hizballah after 2006 by avoiding direct air strikes against the organization and Lebanon. This mutual deterrence in the Lebanese arena continues to this day.

Even his pugnacious stance against the Iranian buildup in Syria and the massive airstrikes to prevent it is characterized by a significant limitation. Israel does not openly acknowledge its strikes because of the doctrine of total war avoidance short of a confrontation with Iran.

Oddly, Iran is in complete agreement with Netanyahu’s doctrine. It also wants to avoid confrontation except when it achieves nuclear strike capability and is ready to strike or retaliate against an Israeli preemptive strike.

For the very reason of avoiding a total war, Iran is increasing its coordination with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and enhancing their capabilities. Iranian leaders hope that coordinated strikes by proxies other than Hizballah – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza that took place recently – will be able to deter Israel from striking at the Iranian buildup in Syria or the movement of precision-guided missiles. Iran wants to build a ring of fire around Israel to hit the soft spot of the Home Front.

So what looks like escalation toward all-out confrontation is an Iranian move to avoid it by ensuring that Hizballah, Iran’s “air force” in the absence of airpower of its own, will only be used in all-out war.

The sagacity of the Netanyahu Doctrine and its tacit acceptance by Israel’s nemesis can hardly be disputed. Nevertheless, it harbors two primary dangers, one in the short term and one in the long term. The short-term danger, as so many examples in history show, is that escalation designed to be limited can prod the actors in conflict into total war against their wishes. The long-term danger is that the doctrine enables the military buildup of Iran and its proxies in creating a missile siege around Israel. At some point, the danger of such a siege may become more significant than the threat of nuclear Iran. The question is whether Netanyahu, at that point, will have the flexibility to change the doctrine.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo credit: IMAGO / epd / ChristianDitsch