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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Growing Threat to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge

Filed under: Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Security
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 3, No. 10  


Chairman, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee


  • Israel has no strategic depth and could face a situation in which its air superiority was jeopardized by guerrilla forces coming from neighboring countries just a short distance away, or even from the Palestinian Authority.

  • Since a number of hostile countries now possess long-range missiles, Israel must take into consideration the fact that all of its air bases are within range of enemy weapons.

  • The Egyptians see Hamas as a strategic asset, exactly like the Syrians and the Iranians see Hizballah in Lebanon.

  • If the Egyptians are not doing everything in their capacity to prevent the smuggling of arms and explosives into Gaza, this is a kind of implicit, tacit support.

  • Egypt apparently believes that if Israel and the Palestinians continue to bleed together, in the end this will weaken Israel and tilt the balance of forces against it.

  • The last decade has seen a very sharp rise in military expenditures in Egypt, though that country faces no challenges or threats to its territory from its neighbors. The indoctrination of new Egyptian officers focuses on preparation for a possible future war against Israel.


Living with No Strategic Depth

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, established Israel’s basic defense doctrine in 1953. He took a vacation from his post in order to think about Israel’s future and its concept of defense: How would a miniscule Jewish state be able to survive for decades to come in a hostile, difficult region, while the Arab world explicitly aimed to destroy it. Seven weeks later he came back with a paper entitled: “The Doctrine of Defense and State Armed Forces.” Until today, with some minor changes, this document outlines Israel’s defense doctrine. Among its fundamental axioms:

  • Israel is and will continue to be quantitatively inferior vis-a-vis the Arab world, and therefore, in order to balance this, Israel must develop a very strong qualitative edge.

  • Already in the 1950s, the ratio between the Israeli and Arab populations was one to sixty. Ben-Gurion claimed that even if many Jews came from the diaspora to Israel, the population ratio would continue to be extremely unfavorable to Israel. Even today, the ratio between 5 million Jews and approximately 300 million Arabs is one to sixty.

  • With regard to territory, Ben-Gurion calculated the ratio at about one to three thousand.

So how is Israel, a little state with a small population and impossible borders, to survive in this hostile region? Its only chance is to develop a very strong qualitative edge that will balance its quantitative inferiority. This can be done if the Israel Defense Forces can rely on a pool of experienced, talented, and well-trained personnel to provide that qualitative edge. For this to happen, Israel must create good universities and research centers for science and technology, and develop defense industries that will be able to provide some of that qualitative edge.

In the wake of the recent war in Iraq, some experts have asserted that the Iraqi army was so easily destroyed primarily because of the technological superiority of the American and British forces. Israel today enjoys the same technological edge – at least against states like Syria, though less against Egypt – and has little to fear on the conventional level. Yet there are important differences between Israel’s situation and that of America. This is because in Iraq, the American air bases and carriers were located far from the Iraqi forces, and due to its air superiority, the United States was able to send its troops to engage Iraqi forces at the time of its choosing.

Israel, on the other hand, enjoys no such strategic depth, and this is its main strategic Achilles heel – the country is so small. Hostile forces are relatively close to Israel’s air bases, its main cities, and its centers of mobilization for reserve soldiers. Israel could face a situation in which its air superiority was paralyzed or jeopardized by primitive armed forces, such as commando forces or guerrilla forces coming from neighboring countries just a short distance away, or even from the Palestinian Authority.

The first few days of a war are the most sensitive because the other side could create havoc in Israel’s rear, either through great numbers of ballistic missiles launched from Syria, Egypt, or from other states such as Iran, or from long-range guns or rockets fired by Hizballah from Lebanon. Today Hizballah has more than 10,000 rockets including long-range missiles that are able to reach the city of Haifa, the Haifa naval base, and important air and ground bases throughout northern Israel. If an enemy force was able to penetrate even several kilometers into Israel using very primitive technologies, in order to jeopardize or even partially paralyze its air bases and mobilization centers, then Israel would not be able to exploit its air superiority or position enough ground forces on its borders. In fact, since Israel must now take into consideration the potential threat of Scud and other long-range missiles from a number of hostile countries, all of its air bases are within range of enemy weapons.

So despite its qualitative edge, the fact that this country is so vulnerable, with no strategic depth, means that Israel has to be very careful not to be surprised and to preserve its qualitative edge.


The Role of Egypt

During the 1980s, I was an activist in the Peace Now movement and I participated in many demonstrations and rallies against previous Israeli governments, pushing them to try and take the necessary risks and to negotiate with Arafat, despite his past as a terrorist. I supported the idea of withdrawing from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, and agreed with the idea of taking those risks in order to see what would happen. I was also a supporter of the Oslo Accords.

During the 1990s I made two dramatic shifts, one from the Peace Now movement to the Likud party, and in 1999 from academia to the Knesset. Already in 1994, two factors caused me to reconsider my position on Oslo. One was the behavior of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat’s rhetoric was worrisome, but also of concern was the fact that during the first two years of Oslo, even before terrorism began to escalate, all the demilitarization elements of Oslo were being violated by the Palestinians. The first wave of suicide bombings took place several months after the second Israeli withdrawal from most of the cities in the West Bank in 1995, and not before.

The other factor was Egypt’s behavior and attitude. In 1994 it was apparent that to the Egyptians the peace process was not genuine, but rather an opportunity to weaken Israel. Between 1993 and 1995, while Israel began to reduce its military expenditures, instead of warming the cold peace between Egypt and Israel following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, Egypt sharply increased its military spending and began conducting more frequent military exercises simulating war against Israel. In addition, Egyptian rhetoric became even more hostile than before the Oslo process took place. What was Egypt’s real aim? Apparently, the real Egyptian policy is to let Israelis and Palestinians bleed together.

This became apparent to some Americans only after the Camp David summit, when Ehud Barak sought to achieve a final status agreement with Yasser Arafat. On the third day of the summit, Barak made a dramatic proposal that he was willing to divide Jerusalem, including the Old City, between Israelis and Palestinians. Under his formula, the Jewish neighborhoods would become part of Israel and the Arab neighborhoods part of a Palestinian state. The Old City, the Western Wall, and the Jewish Quarter would be in Israel’s hands, and the Muslim and Christian Quarters, including the mosques on the Temple Mount, would be under Palestinian sovereignty. Barak was quite confident that if Arafat heard he was getting part of Jerusalem, this would tempt him enough to sign a final peace agreement to end the conflict with Israel.

The same day, several hours later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appeared on Egyptian TV and said that Arafat could not sign this deal because he was not authorized to negotiate over Jerusalem. Mubarak said the Old City of Jerusalem belongs to all Muslims and all Arabs, and dividing the Old City between Jews or Israelis and Palestinians would be considered treason in Arab history. He then added that Arafat knew very well the fate of those who commit treason in Arab history. Several hours later, other Arab leaders in Iraq, Syria, and Morocco began echoing this warning to Arafat not to sign the agreement and not to agree to Israel’s new, dramatic proposal to divide Jerusalem. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the Egyptian contribution at the time was negative.

In 1995, Egypt put enormous pressure on the late King Hussein not to sign a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, and no official representative from Egypt attended the signing ceremony in the Arava. Egypt also placed enormous pressure on Morocco and Qatar during the Rabin administration not to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Even today, it is only due to very strong Egyptian pressure that Jordan and Morocco do not have ambassadors in Israel.

What is the real Egyptian policy toward Israel and toward the peace process? In the 1980s, Israel was told by Egypt that the peace between them was so cold because Egypt was the only country in the region that had made peace with Israel. Several years ago, Israel had a peace process with the Palestinians, a peace agreement with Jordan, and improved relations with Morocco, Qatar, and some other moderate Arab states, but the peace between Israel and Egypt grew even colder.

Today Israel can no longer ignore the very sophisticated relationship between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, as well as with Palestinian terrorist organizations, mainly Hamas. It is clear that most of the explosives and weapons that reach Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza come from Egypt through the tunnels in Rafiah. The Sinai desert has become the logistic rear for these terrorist organizations. If the Egyptians are not doing everything in their capacity to prevent the smuggling of arms and explosives into Gaza, this represents implicit, tacit support for such activity. A comparison with Jordanian attempts to prevent smuggling of arms and explosives across its border with Israel shows that the Jordanians are much more serious, and much more successful. Thus, it is much more difficult for Hizballah to send arms and ammunition to Islamic fundamentalists in the West Bank through Jordan than to Gaza through Egypt.

Between the Suez Canal and the Israeli-Egyptian border are more than 200 kilometers of desert. Almost no one lives there, there are only two roads, and it is quite easy to put up some roadblocks and checkpoints to make sure that no weapons pass from the Suez Canal to Rafiah. When there has been strong pressure from the United States, Egypt has arrested some of the smugglers and even destroyed one or two tunnels. But basically they are turning a blind eye to weapons smuggling.

Egypt gives not only logistical support but also diplomatic support to Hamas. When senior Egyptian officials meet with the heads of Hamas in Egypt or in the territories, this represents a form of political support, directed not as much against Israel as against the Palestinian Authority, against the Abu Mazen government, against Abu Ala. Even during the latest attempts to reach some kind of hudna, a cessation of violence, the Egyptians have been very active, not between Israel and the Palestinians but between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. During the time of the Abu Mazen government, the Egyptians were trying to achieve an agreement with Hamas to cease attacks for three or six months, and in return Hamas would receive guarantees that the Palestinian Authority would not crack down on them and would not dismantle their military infrastructure. The Egyptians were quite explicit about insisting that a war among brothers should not occur, and that Israel and the United States were trying to incite such a war with their demands for a crackdown on militants. Actually, what they were saying to the Palestinian Authority was: “You shouldn’t do to Hamas what we in Egypt did to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Already in 1996, when Clinton demanded that Arafat crack down on Hamas, Egypt’s president and foreign minister both warned Arafat against doing so.

The Egyptians see Hamas as a strategic asset, exactly like the Syrians and the Iranians see Hizballah in Lebanon. Egypt apparently believes that if Israel and the Palestinians continue to bleed together, in the end this will weaken Israel and tilt the balance of forces against it.

Its support of Hamas vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority makes Egypt the mediator among the Palestinians inside the PA. In a sense, this is very similar to the position of Syria in Lebanon before Syria occupied Lebanon in the 1970s, when Syria was mediating between the Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, and between the PLO and the Lebanese government.


Against Whom is Egypt Arming?

Israel can no longer ignore Egypt’s growing military strength. Unlike Israel, Egypt faces no existential threat or even any military threat along its borders. Sudan and Libya have almost no armies at all. They possess no military threat to Egypt with old Soviet tanks and Migs from the 1960s, most of them nonfunctioning. Egypt faces no challenges or threats to its territory from its neighbors. Israel has no ambitions in Egypt and, indeed, withdrew from the entire Sinai peninsula, with its oil fields, in order to achieve peace and stability. Israel, a Western democracy and an open society, will not wage a full-scale war on anyone unless under attack. As Immanuel Kant already noted 200 years ago, democracies are very reluctant to go to war, unlike totalitarian regimes. Still, our small country must invest billions of dollars to develop a modern and efficient armed forces.

The last decade has seen a very sharp rise in military expenditures in Egypt, beyond the amounts that poor country gets from the United States annually. Up to now, Egypt has received more than $30 billion in military aid from the United States. Israel has received slightly more in the last 22 years, but we have had to spend much of it on war – against Palestinian terrorism, against Hizballah in the north, against the Iraqis who in 1991 struck Israel with Scud missiles, and other military campaigns Israel was forced to conduct.

Since 1996, three years after Oslo, most of the general military exercises undertaken by the Egyptian army have simulated war against Israel. In 1996, for the first time, the “Badar exercises,” the largest exercises of the Egyptian army, were subtitled as simulating war against “a little country northeast of Egypt.” There is only one such country on the map. The indoctrination of new Egyptian officers focuses on preparation for a possible future war against Israel.

Israel is very concerned about the erosion of its qualitative edge vis-a-vis both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For more than a decade, there has been a tacit understanding between Israel and the United States that while the U.S. may supply the same primary combat platforms (planes, tanks, or ships) to both sides, Israel was to preserve its qualitative edge in the weapons systems aboard those platforms, such as missiles, electronic warfare capabilities, and computers. The Egyptians have exactly the same U.S.-made F-16 airplanes as the Israel air force, and approximately the same number – 240. They have the same Apache helicopters, which now are to be upgraded to the Longbow version. They have very modern and efficient Abrams tanks which are parallel to the Israeli Merkava, and modern frigates and missiles boats from Holland, Spain, and the United States. Israel has so far succeeded in preserving its qualitative edge in the field of weapons systems, but we continue to ask the Americans to consider our concerns because that qualitative edge is the only thing we have to defend Israel against the huge Arab world around us.

Israel’s defense industries have developed some of the best weapons systems in the world, especially in the field of missiles and electronic warfare, in order to assure that qualitative edge even if Egypt and Saudi Arabia are armed with the best weapons systems in the West. This edge is seen in Israel’s own air-to-air missiles, missile defense systems for ships, and modern radars.

Today there are growing pressures from Arab countries to obtain more sophisticated and advanced air-to-air missiles and guided munitions. If the United States or other Western countries supply these kinds of weapons, this will erode Israel’s technological edge even further. This is the reason it is so difficult to cut Israel’s military budget, as this may force us not to buy the best products, and not to develop some future products, leading to another erosion of Israel’s technological edge.

Several months ago, during the Sharm el-Sheikh summit between President Bush and Arab leaders, Bush spoke of the need for the Arab states in the Middle East to contribute to the war against terrorism by taking two steps: stopping the flow of money to terrorist organizations, and ending the incitement against the United States, Israel, the West, and the Jewish people. While Egyptian President Mubarak stood near President Bush, nodding his head as Bush was speaking about the need for governments in the region to end the terrible racist incitement against Jews, against the Jewish state, and against the Western world in general, at exactly the same time, official Egyptian government TV broadcast a program based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, depicting the Jews as the evil force in the world, trying to corrupt gentile societies, not just in Europe but also in the Middle East.


A Viable Jewish State

Many people speak about a viable Palestinian state, but we also have to think about a viable Jewish state. For the Jewish state to be viable, it must be defendable. Without being able to defend ourselves, we cannot have a viable state, whether or not there is a peace agreement. That is why Israelis are so concerned about security arrangements, about minimal security zones, about the appearance of a new and different Palestinian regime that will be able to fulfill its commitments, not just about preventing terrorism but about preserving the complete demilitarization of the territories from which Israel withdrew, as was specified in the Oslo Accords.

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This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author’s presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on November 10, 2003.