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.

What is more, the recent discovery of natural gas basins in the eastern Mediterranean makes a potential goldmine out of Israel’s offshore exclusive economic zone, an area over which only Israel holds the rights to explore and use marine resources. The deposits there have the potential to make Israel energy independent and allow it to export energy to Europe and possibly even Asia. At the same time, the deposits could provoke new conflicts between Israel and neighboring coastal states, including Turkey and Lebanon. These countries have not settled the exact demarcation of their exclusive economic zones, and if Israel or Lebanon awarded exploration licenses in areas each side claimed, the current diplomatic dispute would surely heat up.   

Israel ought to prepare to protect its interests in the exclusive economic zone by moderately expanding its surface fleet, which would allow Israel to maintain a continuous presence in the area and protect its offshore activities, including gas exploration. Such a fleet could also serve as a coast guard, something that Israel does not currently have.

Of course, the new gas deposits might also breed regional cooperation, given the economic benefits of countries working together to extract the gas. Israel is currently exploring such a partnership with Cyprus, which might include the creation of a floating facility for joint gas liquefaction. Furthermore, Israel can be assured of stronger relations with Greece and Bulgaria if it elects to export gas to them. Those ties will help compensate for the erosion of Israel’s alliance with Turkey. At the same time, the possibility of Israel supplying gas to Turkey may help improve Israeli-Turkish relations.

A second development that will reorient Israel toward the seas is the growth of illicit shipments in waters off Israel’s coast. Two of the country’s biggest adversaries, Hezbollah and Hamas, both receive weapons and supplies through illicit maritime trade. These groups often rely on sea-based smuggling because of the limited ability of countries to police international waters and the fact that ships can carry hundreds of tons of weapons in a single delivery. In recent years, though, Israel has made some progress, seizing several ships that were found to be carrying arms to its nonstate foes. In 2009, for example, the Israeli navy boarded the MV Francop, which it suspected of carrying arms from Iran to Hezbollah, and found dozens of containers of weapons.  

The seas are also the conduit for other illicit trade, including drugs, and illegal migration. As Israel increasingly seals its southern border from people fleeing conflict and economic deprivation in Africa, these migrants will most likely try to reach Israel by sea. Like other industrially advanced nations along the shores of the Mediterranean, Israel worries about the adverse socioeconomic effects that an influx of migrants from the global south might have.  

These new challenges, which Israel does not face alone, have led to increased international efforts to protect the maritime domain. These include the development of such rule-based security regimes as the Proliferation Security Initiative, launched by the United States in 2003. The initiative is intended to coordinate the interdiction of vessels that are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, delivery systems, and related materials. In addition, maritime countries have regularly brought their navies together to fight common foes. The Combined Task Force 150, to cite just one example, brings 25 countries together to address piracy and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

Israel is a primary beneficiary of such arrangements. Indeed, it even plays a small role in at least one of them; an Israeli liaison officer is now permanently based in NATO's Allied Naples Maritime Command. That liaison facilitates Israeli cooperation with the alliance's antiterror operation in the Mediterranean. Israel should consider joining more and playing a larger role in such maritime operations. It could contribute to the stability of the seas through intelligence sharing, the monitoring of shipments, and even joint enforcement efforts at sea.

To expand on these initiatives, Israel needs its own comprehensive national maritime strategy that encompasses security, trade, law, science, the environment, and technology. Any strategy should entail the strengthening of existing maritime institutions, including Israel’s national shipping authority, as well as the creation of new institutions such as a coast guard and educational institutions dedicated to maritime activities.

In devising a maritime strategy, Israel will have to aim for more than its traditional goal of balancing its rivals’ navies; in the future, the Israeli navy will face mostly nonstate actors. The navy’s commanders will also need to change their conceptions of the service. Right now, the surface fleet's leaders are holding on to outdated notions about their missions, imagining they will find themselves in decisive conventional battles against another state. Although the capabilities needed to win such fights should not be abandoned, Israel’s naval commanders will need to broaden the rationale for the force to include playing diplomatic and constabulary roles and participating in international maritime security operations.    

Part of the problem with Israel’s lack of a top-down maritime strategy is that it has forced the navy to carve out its own roles and missions for too long. The once-secluded Navy SEALs, for example, have taken part in land-based combat in both Lebanon and the West Bank. The unit has also participated in the interception of hostile vessels carrying weapons shipments to Israel's nonstate foes. With a proper strategy, Israel could lay out a comprehensive role for each part of the navy.

A maritime and naval strategy should also adjudicate the internal debates regarding the surface fleet's size. Now, with only 13 vessels -- half of its size in the 1980s -- the fleet might not be able to carry out some of its new tasks, such as protecting the waters above gas deposits and combating smugglers. Israeli leaders should reassess the navy's reach and the size of its vessels. If the navy does indeed commit to maintaining a forward presence in the exclusive economic zone, it might need a handful of new ships to stave off a potential conflict over natural resources.

A future strategy must also address the possible role the navy could play in dealing with a nuclear Iran. Here, Israel should spell out the aims of its third arm, the submarine fleet. This so-called silent fleet is expected to double in size by 2017, when it will deploy a sixth Dolphin-class submarine. This expansion is allegedly aimed, at least in part, at bolstering Israel's deterrent posture vis-à-vis Iran.

There can be no doubt that in the coming decades, Israel will need to reorient toward the Mediterranean. If the country wants to best protect its security and advance its economic interests at sea, it will need to bring together its maritime activities under a larger, more coherent strategy. 


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  • EHUD EIRAN is Assistant Professor in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa. He previously served as Assistant to the Foreign Policy Adviser to Israel's Prime Minister.
    YUVAL ZUR is Principal of the Maritime Strategy Chair at the University of Haifa. Previously, he was Commander of Israel's Submarine Flotilla, Vice Chief for Naval Operations, and Chief of Staff of the Israeli Navy. After retiring as an admiral, he served as Deputy Director General of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission.
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