Israel's Missing Naval Strategy

The Jewish State Turns to the Mediterranean

An Israeli army helicopter and navy ships take part in Israel's 62nd Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv, April 2010. (Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters)

Ever since Israel first faced the trauma of a ground invasion by its Arab neighbors in 1948, its military planners and strategists have focused chiefly on land-based threats. The country's armed forces and security doctrine were designed to deter such attacks or bring them to a swift end should they occur. And as expected, the wars that Israel has fought since its birth have been mostly ground-based.

To this day, Israel’s maritime strategy remains largely an afterthought. For many years, Israel’s navy has been the country’s least visible military service. The country’s most recent effort to craft a new national security strategy, in 2006, did not include a significant maritime component. As a result, Israel has no comprehensive vision, goals, or policy for maritime and naval issues.  

This is a problem. As a small country hemmed in by adversaries on all of its land borders, Israel should realize that its security and economic prosperity are intrinsically and directly linked to the open seas. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, understood that well. "Anyone who understands our geographic reality and its economic and political implications,” he said in a 1950 speech, “will immediately grasp the value of our sea power for our existence."

Ben-Gurion and his predecessors did not heed these words of wisdom, which are even more apt today. For starters, the great bulk of Israel’s export and import cargo -- 98 percent in 2011 -- leaves or enters the country through the Mediterranean Sea. Underwater cables transmit almost all of Israel's communications to the world. And with an increasingly hostile Iran channeling weapons through the sea to Israel’s adversaries, it is imperative that Israel devote more attention to its naval strategy and forces.

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