Small Wars Journal

The Dominance of Prevention in Israeli Strategic Culture

Sun, 01/30/2022 - 11:51am

The Dominance of Prevention in Israeli Strategic Culture

By Itai Shapira

Israeli political, security and military leadership is constantly declaring it will deny and prevent Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities.[1] While the United States shares this rationale but focuses on diplomacy, Israel considers the Iranian nuclear issue as existential, and is preparing military contingencies should diplomacy fail.[2] The logic of prevention stands at the heart of this Israeli policy.

Preventive campaigns have been part of Israel’s strategy and national security doctrine for decades.[3] In the past, they were applied for countering threats considered as existential, such as military nuclear programs or a change in the balance of powers. This can be framed as “strategic prevention”. Prevention has also been applied for decades in counterterrorism campaigns, mainly through assassination of terrorist leaders. However, in recent years, Israel has applied a preventive approach to counter emerging conventional challenges[4] – through the “campaign between the wars” (CBW), sometimes described as a tool for the strategic competition with Iran.[5] This can be coined “operational prevention”.

Better understanding of this Israeli preventive approach, including its potential implications for American interests when manifested,[6] might assist the United States in formulating a nuanced and realistic policy towards the Middle East. As Ken Booth has claimed in the 1970s, avoiding ethnocentrism and acknowledging differences in strategic cultures is imperative when engaging partners and allies, as much as it is when confronting adversaries.[7]



Israel’s national security doctrine was formed by its first premier Ben-Gurion in the 1950s.[8] It was never formalized, despite several attempts along the years. This doctrine revolved around the scenario of a conventional total war between Israel and its Arab neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and in some respects also Lebanon and Iraq. Israel, therefore, needed to deter and delay such war as much as possible, have a sufficient early warning to mobilize reserve forces if deterrence fails, and achieve a battlefield decision to restore deterrence if war erupts. The main pillars of Israeli security doctrine, therefore, included early warning, deterrence,[9] battlefield decision,[10] and in recent years also defense.[11]

The preventive approach has supported all pillars. A salient example of this is the war initiated by Israel against Egypt in 1956, secretly coordinated with France and Britain.[12] Israel assessed that the balance of powers might be changing, its qualitative edge might be eroding, its freedom of might be decreasing, and therefore that Egypt is becoming more inclined to initiate another war. Another example is the Six Days war between Israel, Egypt, and Syria in 1967.[13] Although usually considered a pre-emptive war, the Israeli decision to initiate the war also has preventive facets. Like in 1956, Israel assessed it was under siege and that the balance of powers was changing, and hence decided to prevent this threat from materializing through initiating armed conflict.


The Begin Doctrine

A clear illustration of the Israeli preventive approach is the strikes against adversary military nuclear projects in 1981 and 2007. Such projects are considered as existential threats one they materialize.

In 1981, Israel conducted an airstrike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor known as “Osirak”.[14] This was a manifestation of what would later be called the “Begin Doctrine”, after the Israeli premier at the time Menachem Begin, which aims at preventing Israel’s adversaries from developing military nuclear programs.[15]

Since covert disruption was not sufficient, while acknowledging the political and military risks embedded in a unilateral military action – Israel decided to strike the reactor near Baghdad.[16] After the strike, Israel was indeed condemned by the United Nations and suffered a crisis with the United States. Major Gen. (res.) Yadlin, who participated in the strike as a young pilot, hailed Begin for his “sense of history” and his remembrance of the Holocaust. The historical roots of the preventive approach stand out.[17]

The same approach was manifested in the Israeli airstrike in 2007 against a Syrian nuclear reactor, built by North Korean personnel.[18] This decision, once again, contained political, military, and domestic risks. Eventually, the Syrians did not react after the strike, which was not published until a decade later, and was not coordinated with the United States although the intelligence was shared prior to the operation.


Iran’s military nuclear project

The most recent illustration of Israel’s preventive approach regards Iran. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been troubling Israel since the 1990s. When Israeli political leaders discuss this issue, and Iran more broadly, they sometimes refer to the Nazi regime as an historical analog.[19]

In the recent decade, Israel has conducted a diplomatic campaign intended to pressure Iran, culminating in several speeches by prime minister Netanyahu in the United Nations and the American Congress – the latter causing tensions with the United States.[20] Israel has also reportedly conducted covert operations, such as cyber-attacks and assassinations of scientists, to disrupt the Iranian nuclear project.[21]

Moreover, Israel was on the verge of a military airstrike against Iranian nuclear sites circa 2012.[22] The attack did not take place because of disagreements inside Israeli leadership, while the United States also strongly objected.[23] And nowadays, Israel is once again preparing a military option should diplomacy fail.


Israel expanding the preventive approach

Prevention, alongside an approach of “influence”, was explicitly mentioned in the latest version of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) strategy document, updated in 2018 after an initial version in 2015.[24] This document portrays two concepts of operations for the IDF – battlefield decision, and influence/prevention – and then describes the necessary capacities needed for implementing them. Compared to previous IDF strategy documents, the 2018 and 2015 ones do not focus solely on the scenario of a war.[25] They also reflect the mindset of the Israeli “campaign between the wars” (CBW), which was already practiced since 2013 as the operational tool for implementing the “prevention and influence” approach.[26]

The CBW exceeds the traditional military thinking, in which a military either fights a war or prepares for one. Using American terminology, it is practiced in the “competitive continuum”.[27] It also exceeds the use of covert operations against terrorist organizations, an approach Israel has been implementing for decades through assassination of senior terrorist leaders.[28]

The CBW includes covert action, diplomacy, information operations, and disclosure of intelligence. [29] However, it mainly relies on employment of brute military force. It is aimed at foiling emerging threats, countering force build-up, creating better conditions for conflict in case it erupts, enhancing deterrence, and delaying war as much as possible. It is conducted short of war, but not necessarily short of armed conflict. For instance, anti-aircraft missiles were fired from Syria at Israeli airplanes who conducted strikes as part of the CBW, even using Iranian systems.[30]

In its first years, the CBW was mainly practiced through airstrikes in Syria, aimed at foiling transfer of advanced arms from Syria to Hizballah, which is the organization and Iranian proxy operating in Lebanon. Israel also tried to foil transfer of Iranian weapons through Syria to Hizballah, and circa 2013 was troubled by transfers of chemical arms.[31] Hence, Israel has effectively embarked on a preventive campaign aimed at denying adversaries from acquiring advanced capabilities.

As Israeli officials have recently testified, the possession of advanced arms such as air-defense systems by Hizballah in Lebanon might limit Israel’s freedom of action and is thus considered “a red line”.[32] As other militaries, Israeli offensive actions and freedom of action are challenged by air anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the hands of non-state actors,[33] while unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles challenge its air defense systems.[34]

Along the years, Israel has expanded the targets engaged by the CBW, and therefore the application of preventive/influence approach. This logic was applied when Israeli reportedly prevented the formulation of terrorist infrastructures, Iranian-directed and ISIS-related, along its borders with Syria and the Sinai Peninsula.[35] But at the heart of the CBW stood the Israeli attempt to counter several challenges emanating from Iran – such as the Iranian entrenchment and influence in the Middle East;[36] the proliferation of arms and technologies related to the precision-guided missiles (PGMs), including the production of such missiles by Hizballah in Lebanon;[37] and reportedly also the transfer of oil from Iran to Syria.[38]

In these campaigns and operations, Israeli leadership explicitly uses the terminology of prevention when describing its strategy.[39] The Israeli operation in 2018 to foil Hizballah’s project of underground tunnels penetrating Israeli territory[40] can also be considered an application of the preventive approach. The IDF Chief of General Staff during the operation explicitly referred to it as an operation conducted prior to the tunnels becoming a direct threat for Israel.[41] In other words, the operation was intended to prevent this threat from materializing.

The CBW and the preventive approach have expanded in terms of geographical theatres beyond the Syrian one.[42] Israel has reportedly conducted strikes in Iraq,[43] and is engaged in a “shadow war” with Iran which reportedly included actions in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean.[44]

Although some have claimed the CBW has reached its culmination point,[45] and although Israel confronted many dilemmas of risk management[46] regarding preventive and proactive campaigns, the preventive approach still seems to be effective, and does not lead to an unintended escalation. Israel still seems to rely on prevention of threats – while at the same time preparing and conducting force design for hybrid conflicts with Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.[47]


Reflection of Israeli strategic culture

The preventive approach reflects several traits of Israeli strategic culture – which has historical, political, and social origins in the Holocaust under Nazi rule, and in the War of Independence in 1948.[48] These traits include the sense of living under existential threats;[49] a “siege mentality”; a realistic and pragmatic view of international relations; a need to maintain political and military freedom of action at any cost; and a proactive mindset sometimes described as “the cult of the offensive”.[50]

Some of this strategic cultures’ implicit assumptions, for instance, are that once an adversary gains advanced strategic or military capabilities – whether nuclear, PGMs, or underground tunnels – it might be more inclined and therefore less deterred from using it. The lines between adversary capabilities and intentions, therefore, become blurred in Israeli strategic thinking. Prevention is a tool for making sure these are not crossed.

But strategic culture is not fixed over time, and not unitarian through schools of thought. A situation described as competition between sub-cultures for influence over the dominant strategic culture[51] might be evolving in Israel, regarding the appropriate balance between the preventive approach and battlefield decision capabilities.[52] This might intensify as Israel augments its military capacities for striking Iran and preparing for a broad conflict with Iran and its proxies.[53]



In the last decades, Israel has expanded the use of the preventive approach. On top of “strategic prevention” applied for decades and aimed at existential threats, and on top of an ongoing preventive campaign to counter terrorist attacks, an approach of “operational prevention” has emerged, countering conventional and military threats. The main tool used for this is the “campaign between the wars”, which employs kinetic military force on top of covert and diplomatic actions. It is conducted below the threshold of war, but not below that of armed conflict.

Some have suggested the Israeli CBW might bear some lessons for the United States.[54]  But even if the Israeli campaign cannot provide a ground for learning in the context of great-power competition with China and Russia, the United States should acknowledge the dominance of prevention in Israeli strategic culture. This culture is inclined to calculated risk management for maintaining freedom of action, preservation of status-quo in the balance of powers, establishment of a qualitative edge, and taking independent actions if all else fails.




[1] Amy Spiro, “Bennett to Blinken: US must immediately halt Iran talks over ‘nuclear blackmail’ “. Times of Israel, December 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022); TOI Staff, “Mossad chief heads to US as Iran nuclear talks stall”. Times of Israel, December 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022); TOI Staff, “IDF chief vows Israel will further target Iran, including its nuclear programs”. Times of Israel, October 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[2] BBC News, “Iran nuclear: Other options if diplomacy fails, says Biden”. BBC News, August 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022); Yolande Knell, “Iran nuclear program: Threat of Israeli strike grows”. BBC News, November 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[3][3] Colin S. Gary, The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: a Reconsideration. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2007.

[4] Raveh Galili, "Are we at War? The Campaign Between the Wars (CBW) as a Preventive War against Iran and the "Militaries of Terrorism (in Hebrew)”. Between the Poles 35 (2021).

[5] Dana Freisler-Swiri, “The Campaign Between the Wars as a Reflection of the Regional Strategic Competition Between Israel and Iran (in Hebrew)”. Between the Poles 35 (2020).

[6] Agencies and TOI Staff, “Explosions rock base housing US troops in Syrian Desert”. Times of Israel, October 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[7] Ken Booth, Strategy and Ethnocentrism. London, UK: Routledge, 1979.

[8] Uri Bar-Joseph (ed.) Israel’s National Security Towards the 21st Century. London, UK: Routledge, 2001; Dan Meridor and Ron Eldadi, Israel’s National Security Doctrine. Tel Aviv, Israel: INSS, 2019.

[9] Shmuel Bar, “Israeli strategic deterrence doctrine and practice”. Comparative Strategy 39, no. 4 (2020): 321-353.

[10] Avi Kober, “A paradigm in crisis? Israel’s doctrine of military decision”. Israel Affairs 2, no. 1 (1995): 188-211.

[11] Oren Barak, Amit Sheniak and Assaf Shapira, “The shift to defense in Israel’s hybrid military strategy”. Journal of Strategic Studies, 2020.

[12] [12] J.S. Levy and J.R. Gochal, “Democracy and Preventive War: Israel and the 1956 Sinai Campaign”. Security Studies 11, no. 2 (2001): 1-49.

[13] Roger Louis and Avi Shlaim, The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[14] Israeli Air Force, "Operation Opera: Air Force Strike on the Reactor in Iraq (in Hebrew). (accessed January 28, 2022).

[15] Amos Yadlin, “the Begin Doctrine: The Lessons of Osirak and Deir Ez-Zor”. INSS Insight 1037 (2018). ; Avi Shilon, “The Begin Doctrine”. In: Avi Shilon, Menachem Begin: A Life. London, UK: Yale University Press. 335-347.

[16] Uri Bar-Joseph, Michael Handel and Amos Perlmutter, Two Minutes Over Baghdad. London, UK: Routledge, 2003.

[17] Docu and Military Films, “Tamuz: The Bombing of the Reactor in Iraq (in Hebrew). (accessed January 28, 2022).

[18] Kan 11, “Arizona: The Destruction of the Nuclear Reactor (in Hebrew). (accessed January 28, 2022); Haaretz, “The Strike of the Reactor in Syria: American Intelligence Presentation”. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[19] Amir Tibon, “Netanyahy at Saban Forum: Iran, like Nazi Germany, Has ‘Ruthless Commitment to Murdering Jews’ “. Haaretz, December 2017. (accessed January 28, 2022); TOI Staff and Agencies, “Netanyahu likens Iran’s enrichment breach to Nazis’ 1936 occupation of Rhineland”. Times of Israel, July 2019. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[20] Stephen Collinson, “Bad relationship gets worse for Obama, Netanyahu”. CNN Politics, March 2015. (accessed January 28, 2022); United Nations, “At UN Assembly, Israel’s Netanyahu claims Iran harboring secret nuclear site”. Peace and Security, September 2018. (accessed January 28, 2022); Kevin Connolly, “Netanyahu Congress speech a moment of high stakes”. BBC, March 2015. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[21] Richard Maher, "The covert campaign against Iran's nuclear program: Implications for the theory and practice of counterproliferation". Journal of Strategic Studies 44, no. 7 (2021): 1014-1040.

[22] Ben Brumfield and Oren Liebermann, “Leaked audio: Israeli leaders drew up plans to attack Iranian military”. CNN, August 2015. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[23] Adiv Sterman and Mitch Ginsburg, “US pressure nixed Israeli strike on Iran last year”. Times of Israel, September 2012. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[24] Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli Defense Forces Strategy Document. 2015. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[25] Meir Finkel, “IDF Strategy Documents, 2002-2018: On Processes, Chiefs of Staff, and the IDF”. Strategic Assessment 23, no. 4 (2020).

[26] Gadi Eisenkot and Gabi Siboni, “The Campaign Between the Wars: How Israel Rethought Its Strategy to Counter Iran’s Malign Regional Influence”. Washington Institute, September 2019. (accessed January 28, 2022); Nitzan Alon and Dana Freisler-Swiri, “Marathon Running and Sticking Rocks in the Wheels of the Enemy: the Campaign Between the Wars in the IDF (in Hebrew)”. Between the Poles 22-23 (2019): 13-32.

[27] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Competition Continuum. Washington DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2019.

[28] Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. New York: Random House, 2018.

[29] Ofek Riemer and Daniel Sobelman, “Coercive Disclosure: Israel’s Weaponization of Intelligence”. War on the Rocks, August 2019. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[30] Yaniv Kubovich, “Iran Trying to Pop Up Aerial Defense Array on Israel’s Border, Defense Officials Warn”. Ha’aretz, October 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022); TOI Staff, “Army: Crew of F-16 downed by Syria made ‘professional error’ “. Times of Israel, February 2018. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[31] Ben Piven, “Timeline: Israel Attacks on Syrian Targets”. Al Jazeera, May 2013. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[32] Shay Levy, "Israel Cannot Accept a Situation of Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles In Syria and Lebanon (in Hebrew)”. Mako, November 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[33] Jean-Loup Samaan, Nonstate Actors and Anti-Access/Area-Denial Strategies: The Coming Challenge. U.S. Army War College, 2020.

[34] Judah Ari Gross, “Eyeing drone threat from Iran, Israel working to boost radars, air defenses”. Times of Israel, October 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[35] BBC News, “Iran general died in ‘Israeli strike’ in Syrian Golan”. BBC News, January 2015. (accessed January 28, 2022); David D. Kirkpatrick, “Secret Alliance: Israeli Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K”. The New York Times, February 2018. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[36] Shmuel Even, “The Campaign Against Iran in Syria: Are Israel Statements Helpful?”. INSS Insight 1134 (2019).

[37] IDF, “Hezbollah’s Precision Guided Missile Project”. IDF Website, (accessed January 28, 2022); Amos Harel, “Israeli Army Chief on Iran’s Underground Missile Factories in Lebanon: No Need to Panic”. Ha’aretz, July 2017. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[38] Gordon Lubold, Benoit Faucon and Felicia Schwartz, “Israeli Strikes Target Iranian Oil Bound for Syria”. Wall Street Journal, March 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[39] Kan 11, “Time of Truth, Season 3, Episode 18: Clear and Precise Danger (in Hebrew)”. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[40] IDF, “Operation Northern Shield Comes to an End”. IDF Website, (accessed January 28, 2022).

[41] Itamar Eichner, “The Chief of General Staff: We Have Control of Hizballah’s Offensive Underground Project (in Hebrew)”. Ynet, December 2018.,7340,L-5420072,00.html (accessed January 28, 2022).

[42] Amos Yadlin and Assaf Orion, “The Campaign Between Wars: Faster, Higher, Fiercer?” INSS Insight 1209, August 2019.

[43] Lolita C. Baldor, AP, and Josef Federman, “US officials confirm Israeli strike in Iraq”. Military Times, August 2019. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[44] Daniel Avis, “Understanding the Shadow War Between Israel and Iran”. Bloomberg, August 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[45] Itai Brun, “The Culminating Point of Success: Risk Overload in the Campaign between Wars in Syria”. INSS Insight 1124, January 2019.

[46] Nadav Pollak, “Israel’s Forthcoming Security Dilemma”. War on the Rocks, July 2017. (accessed January 28, 2022).

[47] Eran Ortal, “Going to Offense: A Theoretical Framework for the ‘Momentum’ Multi-Year Force Design Plan (in Hebrew)”. Between the Poles 28-30 (2020): 35-50.

[48] Gregory F. Giles, “Continuity and Change in Israeli Strategic Culture”, in: Kerry Karthcner, Jeannie Johnson and Jeffrey A. Larsen, Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction, New York: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2009. 97-116; Dima Adamsky, The culture of military innovation: the impact of cultural factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US, and Israel. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010.

[49] Ofir Winter (ed.), Existential Threat Scenarios to the State of Israel. Tel Aviv, Israel: INSS, 2020.

[50] Avi Kober, “Israel’s Wars of Attrition: Operational and Moral Dilemmas”. Israel Affairs 12, no. 4 (2006): 801-822.

[51] Tamir Libel, “Strategic culture as a (discursive) institution: a proposal for falsifiable theoretical model with computational operationalization”. Defence Studies 20, no.4 (2020): 353-372.

[52] Eran Ortal, “The Fly on the Elephant’s Back: The Campaign Between Wars in Israel’s Security Doctrine”. Strategic Assessment 24, no. 1 (2021).

[53] Amos Gila’d and Itai Haimenis, “Grand Strategy for Israel towards the Iranian Threat (in Hebrew)”. Between the Poles 35, 2021.

[54] Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas Heras, Kaleigh Thomas, and Jennie Matuschak. “Countering Iran in the Gray Zone: What the United States Should Learn from Israel’s Operations in Syria”. CNAS, April 2020. (accessed January 28, 2022); Amr Yossef, “Israel’s Campaign Between the Wars: Lessons for the United States?”. Modern War Institute, July 2021. (accessed January 28, 2022).

About the Author(s)

Itai Shapira is a retired colonel from the Israeli Defense Intelligence, with over 25 years of experience in various analytical roles. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester studying Israeli intelligence culture, and the Director of the Red Team Thinking Academy. Itai has published articles about intelligence and strategy issues in Intelligence and National Security, War on the Rocks, Defense one, RealClear Defense, The National Interest, and Strategic Assessment.