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War in Ukraine has incentivized liberal democracies in Europe and worldwide to reexamine conventional wisdoms about national security. The conflict has already offered a major insight – in modern high intensity warfare one cannot take rapid battlefield success, the capacity to reconstitute arsenals quickly, nor the motivation and morale of one’s society and soldiers, for granted. The biggest challenge for any embattled democracy would be to generate military prowess that is not at the expense of socio-economic stability and liberal values.
Embroiled in warfare more than any other country since WWII, Israel has been wrestling with this challenge for seventy-five years. Protracted conflicts with neighbors might have turned it into a garrison state. However, Israel is not Sparta, but a fortified democracy, with a vibrant society, growing economy and an innovative business, science and technology ecosystem. How has Israel managed to simultaneously be a nation in arms and of start-ups? With all due attention to differences, what food for thought may the Israeli case offer to European and Swiss statesmen and defense intellectuals contemplating resilience and its sources?
The immense geopolitical resilience of tiny Israel has sparked curiosity among small powers involved in global economic, political and security constellations. A narrow definition of resilience stands for an ability to absorb a strike on critical national infrastructures (social, civilian, and military), to recover and retaliate. A broader interpretation refers to a mechanism through which the state stays an effective military machine without compromising on socio-economic well-being and liberalism.
Since 1948, Israel has succeeded in both realms. It survived six major wars, dozens of lower-intensity clashes, spends less than 5 per cent of GDP on defense, and preserves a reasonable level of democracy, life quality and economic growth. This is puzzling: the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are too small for the threats and too big for the state, but Israel has been punching above its weight and against all odds (i.e. inferiority to enemies in landmass, natural and human resources). Three factors explain this conundrum: a sophisticated but neat national security concept, a holistic approach to grand strategy, and a unique culture of management.
Israel’s Strategic Concept
Israel’s national security concept boils down to the so called “holy triangle” of deterrence, intelligence warning and battlefield decision. Israel’s founding fathers assumed that limited resources would always prevent it from gaining terminal military victory in any conflict. While its enemies could afford to lose wars, a major defeat of it would mean the annihilation of Israel. Deterrence – the first pillar of national security – aimed to dissuade the enemies from initiating any war. If this pillar collapsed, the intelligence community was expected to sound the alert before an impending attack. Accurate early warning delivered prior to the enemy’s strike provides, in theory, the time necessary to deploy reservists, conduct preventive strikes and block the enemy’s advances. Finally, even if both pillars collapsed (as happened in 1973 and in 2023), the IDF is still expected to deliver decisive victory. Although not a terminal strategic knockout, victory on a battlefield aims to solve burning operational challenges. Victory also recharges the batteries of deterrence and postpones the next round of hostilities for as long as possible. Israeli strategists assume that deterrence is doomed to fail at some point, at which point the same algorithm should be employed again.
The lack of geographical depth, casualty aversion, socio-economic sensitivity, and a narrow political window of opportunity, created a reflex for preemption and blitzkrieg to transfer warfare unto enemy territory. The cult of the tactical offensive as a defensive strategy became the doctrinal norm. Qualitative edge – superiority in sophisticated weapons and capacity to handle them more professionally than the enemy – became a means to counterbalance the inferiority in numbers. Beyond technology, qualitative edge referred to high personal and educational qualities of conscripts, motivation, unit cohesion and a creative operational stratagem. These multipliers backed by state-of-the-art weapons, locally produced or imported, have been central to the IDF’s theory of victory.
Holistic Perception of National Security
How has this effective military machine maintained a growing economy, stable democracy, and social cohesion? The success of the start-up nation is owed to a holistic approach to national security. The founding fathers of Israel contemplated security broadly, merging military considerations with social agendas and economic visions.
The kernel of this approach has been a carefully maintained scientific-technological, private-public ecosystem. Public education, military, defense industry, private and public job markets and economy have been organically interconnected in Israel. High schools prepare cohorts of young men and women for the military. Then, upon termination of compulsory service, the IDF delivers these top-notch young but experienced experts, veterans of the elite IT units, to the Israeli high-tech industry. This human capital influx regularly joining the job market propels the economy. They also serve the defense sector, through the reserve service until the age of forty.
The state seeks to retain, rotate, and diffuse human capital. Cultivation of quality starts prior to conscription. Patriotic education innate to Israeli schooling produces a reservoir of motivated draftees. The IDF meticulously selects the best and the brightest of the high school youth and trains them separately in special STEM, social sciences, and humanities pre-draft programs, usually in co-production with the universities. The graduates of these prestigious paths become a major element of military aristocracy if they decide to stay in the IDF and defense industry. If they don’t seek careers in defense, upon demobilization and after earning additional degrees they saturate the main sectors of the Israeli economy, often becoming the avant-garde of IT industry, business, financial, legal, and managerial elites. Other bright and motivated youngsters who do not choose this road still end up in the IDF. The skills and networking that they acquire in the military are invaluable. The majority of Israeli unicorns, let alone of the start-up industry, have been based on social connections established within military units.
Retention of quality beyond compulsory service is a challenge for the IDF. In the last decade, to keep human capital, the defense establishment designs attractive career paths “from hire to retire.” Years off for education, or work in private sector, and competitive salaries have been the best practices. The Israeli defense industry has always merged “patriotism” with “pragmatism.” Weapons manufacturing has sought to satisfy the IDF’s needs and to address trends in the arms market. The defense industry has always attracted talent; Rafael, the main weapons manufacturer, is the biggest employer of technological human resources in Israel today. Not everyone joins the defense industry, but cross-fertilization between the private sector (IT industry) and the military stays intact. The reservists bring the best technological solutions from the private sector to the IDF and disseminate knowledge from the defense industry in the business world upon their return to it.
Finally, there is a social function to the IDF. The founding fathers saw the military as a social melting pot. Putting Israeli-born conscripts and new immigrants together to serve enabled smoother mutual adaptation, national coherence, and a shared mentality. For decades, children of billionaires have been sitting in the same tanks and trenches as, and sharing computer desks next to, children from the Israeli periphery. Joint military experience establishes ties across all strata that would otherwise have been impossible. The IDF has been a vehicle of social mobility and integration for immigrants and conscripts from less privileged backgrounds. Drafting from the social margins (non-Jewish minorities, orthodox Jews), and customizing service paths for disabled youth and for draftees on the autistic spectrum, generates social robustness. The outcome of this holistic approach has been national cohesion, individual prosperity, and a collective sense of belonging.
Unique Management Culture
Resilience also depends on flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity for organizational learning. Israeli success in managing uncertainty and instability is due to such cultural traits as pragmatism, practicality, assertiveness, and a tendency to improvise. synthesizing these qualities is a unique culture of management in military, public and business affairs.
Israeli strategic culture celebrates people with a can-do attitude who, as opposed to the historical victim mentality of the diaspora, push forward, try the impossible and go against all odds. It views dynamism and improvisation as the very DNA of Israeli professionals.
Israeli social norms produce a behavior which is open, informal, egalitarian, and inattentive to hierarchy. Israelis see themselves as casual about rules and regulations, often take these as recommendations, or as an invitation to negotiate. Israeli managerial culture values spontaneous problem-solving, more than going by the book, and fosters a climate of bottom-up innovations. Israelis equate improvisation with creativity and proudly present this capacity as a national hallmark of excellence. Capacity to improvise is essential to training and promotion, although its downside has been impatience, amateurishness, adventurism, and aversion to long-term planning.
The Israeli style of management predisposes towards the taking of initiative, the exercise of personal judgment and use of common sense. It glorifies delegation of authority, sees challenging superiors as customary, and perceives both capacities as beneficial to the nation. The atmosphere of “disciplined disobedience” encourages subordinates to challenge common wisdoms, suggest modifications, and come up with unorthodox solutions. Subordinates who do not challenge superiors might be perceived a “yes-men” lacking imagination, initiative, and self-confidence. For practical Israelis, style matters less than content. They are uncomfortable with formality, ceremony, and external forms of courtesy, and equate a confrontational communication style with integrity, honesty, and authenticity. Tolerance of reasonably gutsy subordinates has been the essence of the Israeli style of management, a source of resilience, and the enabler of wartime adaptations, as well as of peacetime innovations in all spheres of activity in public and private sectors.
Known unknowns and the way ahead
The Israeli ecosystem of innovations is a double-edged sword. Due to the high degree of social interconnectivity, fundamental national problems project back onto the defense establishment. Reservists and conscripts are citizens; they bring their social problems into the IDF. The latter is a microcosmos of Israeli society, and the resilience, or lack thereof, of the one reflects that of the other. In recent decades, and especially during this last year, social unrest and political instability turned a “melting pot” into a “tension pot.”
The clash of Israel’s sub-communities is threatening the combat effectiveness and stability of command within the IDF. Challenges abound; certain Orthodox Jewish male soldiers refuse to serve with female conscripts or to take orders from female commanders; certain servicemen want to join the antigovernment protests; others consider selective normative refusals such as not serving in certain territories or not following or giving certain orders due to political views and ethical considerations. Against the backdrop of the current protests, significant number of reservists (from rank and file to generals) from the air force, intelligence, and special operation do not share the agenda of the incumbent government and refuse to volunteer to reserve service. These units deal with the main national security threat to the state of Israel – Iranian conventional and nuclear assertiveness – and depend on reservists.
On the eve of the intelligence blunder and surprise attack of October 2023 , Israel has been facing one of the largest social and identity crises in its history. Managing these tensions is a current major challenge for politicians and for the defense establishment. Time will tell if and how it will influence the IDF’s conduct in war, and if and how the Israeli decision makers and society will prevent the deterioration of this “start-up nation” to a “shutdown nation.”
«On the eve of the intelligence blunder and surprise attack of October 2023 , Israel has been facing one of the largest social and identity crises in its history.»
Israeli experience is not necessarily applicable elsewhere. However, it stimulates the imagination and leads to the right questions being asked about the resilience of small regional powers. Apparently, the Israeli case suggests that coherent national identity and social solidarity are necessary, albeit not sufficient, conditions for the resilience of national security and a stable innovation ecosystem.
P.S. This article was written prior to the war but submitted under fire. The arguments the article offers are still intact, and apply to the wartime and post-war reality.