Eleven policy prescriptions for Israel’s new government, reflecting the insights of JISS fellows who jointly surveyed the challenges Israel’s leaders are facing and crafted these diplomatic and defense policy emphases.
Despite recent domestic political turmoil, Israel is a strong nation. In many ways, Israel’s strategic situation has never been better. In fact, the corona crisis and recent skirmishes with Hamas demonstrate the resilience of Israeli society. Nevertheless, there still are acute challenges to Israeli security.
The primary threat to Israel is the Iranian nuclear program. This could lead to unilateral Israeli action against Iran, with all the attendant risks to Israel’s home-front from Iran and its militia proxies. In addition, Israel is locked into a protracted conflict with the Palestinians. Therefore, Israel must be ready for war. Indeed, this is the supreme test for Israeli society.
Maintaining national cohesion and building Israel’s military and diplomatic strength are the foremost priorities for Israel’s 36th Government. There is room for Israel to improve its relationship with the US. In addition, Israel ought to take advantage of current diplomatic opportunities, such as the Abraham Accords and to expand its alliances in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean to counter Turkish regional ambitions. For the near term, Israel can do no better than managing the conflict with the Palestinians.
1. Nurture National Cohesion
National cohesion is a vital component of Israel’s resilience for the tough times that undoubtedly lie ahead. After a corrosive period of internal political instability, Israel’s government must nurture a spirit of unity and national purpose by building a policy consensus as broad as possible, in the economic, social, educational, and security realms. This is necessary both in preparation for likely combat operations against Iran and its proxies, and to manage the conflict with the Palestinians and diplomatic relations with the Biden administration.
2. Counter Iran’s Ambitions
Even if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA of 2015, its path to a nuclear bomb will not be blocked, only deferred, perhaps. Therefore, the IDF and Israeli intelligence community must make the necessary preparations to alone foil the Iranian nuclear program. Doing so will also assist in pushing Iran into a “better and longer” agreement with the US. To prevent the emergence of an Iranian war machine with long-range missiles in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and even in the West Bank, Israel must continue its ongoing military interdictions in these areas (what is called “the campaign between wars”). This also explains the need to block Iran’s attempts to undermine the stability of Jordan.
3. Prepare for Severe War Scenarios
Israel must prepare simultaneously for a range of severe war scenarios. This includes preparation for war against an Iranian-led coalition with the ability to withstand an intense missile war on three fronts. The highest priority is building a ground force capable of swift maneuver and attaining a decisive victory by taking the fight into enemy territory. Reliance on intelligence and accurate firepower (which has been the IDF approach in recent years) is insufficient; this is an important adjunct, not an alternative, to ground combat. The Israeli public’s willingness to escalate the armed conflict in Gaza, as expressed in polls in the 2014 and 2021 clashes, suggests that Israeli society is not as sensitive to casualties as commonly thought.
4. Preserve Bipartisan Support for Israel in the US
Israel has no substitute for US political support. It is critical to intensify cooperation with the US military and the intelligence community, and to be sensitive to American concerns regarding China. In the increasingly polarized American political arena, Israeli leadership also needs to maintain close relations with both US political parties, especially since there is slippage in support among Democratic circles. It is time for damage control in relations with American Jewry, especially with its younger cohorts. They have been affected not only by societal currents in the US, but also by Israeli policies in matters of religion and state. Israel should consider investment in Jewish education in the US Jewish community.
5. Give Control over Jerusalem a High Priority
Israel’s national security requires control over Jerusalem and its environs. Recent clashes underscore the challenges to Israel’s sovereignty in the city. Therefore, strengthening Israel’s hold on Jerusalem should be a high priority, with the government acting to bolster the Zionist majority in the city, among other by building in the E-1 quadrant and linking the city to Maaleh Adumim. Arab parts of the city should be governed firmly and fairly, and greater integration of eastern Jerusalem Arabs should be encouraged through investments in infrastructure and education. Resolute action needs to be taken against foreign elements who undermine Israel’s sovereignty in the Jewish People’s historic capital.
6. Manage the Conflict with the Palestinians
Israel should adhere to a strategy of “conflict management” regarding the Palestinians, designed to reduce the cost of conflict for both sides. This involves careful use of force; economic “carrots”; effective governance in Area C of the West Bank; and adherence to the existing footprint of the settlement enterprise (except in greater Jerusalem, where Israel needs to build and expand significantly). Israel must be prepared to thwart a Hamas takeover in the post-Mahmoud Abbas era, and to preserve cooperation with security forces in the West Bank at the local level, as best possible. Despite the removal of the Trump peace plan from the agenda, there are elements of the plan that coincide with Israel’s “red lines,” and Israel should clarify what will not be negotiable in a future compromise settlement with the Palestinians.
7. Deter Hamas in Gaza and Insist on a Quid Pro Quo for Reconstruction
Israel should continue with the policy of seeking to establish deterrence versus Hamas for as long as possible, by hitting quality targets on the other side and maintaining levers of pressure on Hamas. The goal should be reduction of the material and psychological harm to Israeli citizens and minimizing the diplomatic costs of violent eruptions. Despite Hamas’ attacks, it must be borne in mind that the threats from Gaza are secondary to those posed to Israel on the northern front. (Some JISS fellows think that Israel should crush Hamas first and soon, to free the army for the bigger battle ahead against Hezbollah.) Israel cannot tolerate a steady drizzle of rocket fire and incendiary balloons from Gaza, and if necessary, should eliminate Hamas leaders. Israel should not rush into assisting with reconstruction in Gaza, which inevitably also will strengthen Hamas’ military power. Israel should continue to insist on POW return as the price for reconstruction. The demilitarization of Gaza is not a realistic demand, but this serves Israel’s tactical purposes: delaying reconstruction until broader understandings can be reached and/or until Egypt gains the upper hand over Qatar in matters relating to Gaza.
8. Police and Develop the Israeli Arab Sector
Ethno-religious friction between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens will not disappear overnight. Recent clashes demonstrate that such tensions are potent. Nevertheless, Israel should continue to work towards better integration of Israeli Arabs in Israeli society by dealing with the special needs of this community. At the same time, Israel must set and reinforce the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and exact a price against those who engage in violence. An urgent priority is confiscation of the many weapons held illegally by Israeli Arabs.
9. Prioritize Egypt and Jordan while Seeking New Arab Allies and Confronting Turkey
Egypt and Jordan are important strategic partners for Israel, and their stability is an uppermost Israeli priority. Relations with Egypt should be strengthened, and ties with Jordan rehabilitated. Israel should take advantage of its new ties with Gulf states not only to confront Iran, but also to push back against the hegemonic ambitions of Turkey – for as long as Erdogan backs Hamas (an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood) and continues to undermine Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem. The Israel-Cyprus-Greece strategic triangle should be expanded as a counterbalance to Turkey. Turkey’s nuclear ambitions deserve special attention. At the same time, Turkey is an important Muslim country where other voices exist, and it is useful to maintain Israel-Turkey trade ties and open channels to the Turkish people.
10. Build Strategic Ties with India, While Avoiding a Break with China
The balance of power in Asia is a burning global issue. Israel should develop its ties with Indo-Pacific “Quad” allies: the US, India, Japan, and Australia, and be sensitive to American concerns about economic partnerships with China; without breaking ties with China and without forgoing all useful business opportunities.
11. Enhance Israel’s Diplomatic Toolbox
It is time to rebuild the professional Israeli foreign service, including the allocation of additional budgets for diplomacy; the enhancement of MASHAV (Israel’s foreign aid agency) and the integration of Israeli (and Jewish) NGOs in aid projects overseas. It is equally important to build up the network of Israeli trade representatives abroad, in an era where Israel’s exports have surpassed NIS 400 billion. In parallel, the capacities of the Israeli intelligence community must continue to expand; its remarkable achievements should not be taken for granted. Inter-agency consultation should be enhanced, led by the National Security Council, with Jerusalem as the focal point of the policy process. Among the additional diplomatic challenges are the training of professionals who can communicate with an increasingly attentive audience in the Arabic-speaking world; maintaining deconfliction and other modes of cooperation with Russia and the Russian military; finding new anchors for Israel’s ties with European countries based on cooperation against terrorism, against Iran, and against Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean; improving voting patterns at the UN regarding Israel; and working toward formal ties with Indonesia and Bangladesh in the context of the Abraham Accords.