Israeli national security strategy can seem baffling. Many observers in the United States and Europe, for example, wonder how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have warned for years that Iran’s nuclear program posed an existential threat to Israel yet has balked at the international community’s attempts to defang it. By raising concerns about the nuclear deal between Iran and five great powers without offering a convincing alternative, Netanyahu has appeared to oppose any solution at all. Instead, as Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said in July, Netanyahu is acting as though he would prefer a “permanent state of standoff” with Tehran.
Nor do Israeli leaders seem to have a clear answer in mind for how to solve the country’s conflict with the Palestinians. The country faces nearly universal opprobrium for its occupation of the West Bank and the looming possibility that it will have to sacrifice either its democracy or its Jewish demographic majority should it not pursue territorial partition with the Palestinians. Yet few in the Israeli government offer realistic strategies for ending the conflict. Netanyahu himself has gone back and forth, declaring his support for a two-state solution in theory, indicating that he does not believe one can emerge in the foreseeable future, and offering no alternative solution in its place.
What lies behind the absence of a constructive Israeli national security agenda, however, is neither illogic nor confusion but rather a belief that there are currently no solutions to the challenges the country faces and that seeking quick fixes to intractable problems is dangerously naive. Kicking problems down the road until some indefinite future point at which they can be tackled more successfully therefore does not reflect a lack of Israeli strategy; rather, it defines Israeli strategy. This strategy is at times wrong, but it is not absurd.
At his core, Netanyahu is not so much hawkish as conservative.
Israel’s strategic conservatism—the notion that it can be better to bide one’