Mosaic Magazine

Response to: "Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane"January 2014

What Would Ben-Gurion Do

. . . if he were caught between the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran and the decline of the United States?

What Would Ben-Gurion Do

Ofir Haivry inIsrael in the Eye of the Hurricane” calls for reviving David Ben-Gurion’s activist school of foreign policy. In building his case for the rightness of such a policy, Haivry provides us not only with an insightful survey of the historical development of Israeli strategy but also with a framework for comparing policies across time periods. His approach is particularly helpful in pointing out the complex interconnections among local, regional, and global politics.

But in taking the view from 30,000 feet, Haivry misses the specific dilemma that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces: Israel is caught uncomfortably between the decline of American power and the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran.

As Haivry observes, America is pulling back. In the words of former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the Obama administration has determined that the United States is “overinvested” in the Middle East. President Obama, therefore, has shown himself to be deeply reluctant to commit the U.S. to any initiative designed to shape a new regional order. This standoffishness has resulted in a power vacuum. The vacuum is most obvious in Syria, where Shiite Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda are both growing increasingly powerful even as they vie with each other for influence.

For Israel, the dilemma arises not so much from America’s withdrawal as from the decidedly partial character of that withdrawal. Although Obama has taken one step out the door, the other foot is still planted firmly in place. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, for example, he targeted two problems for energetic solution: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. He could not have chosen two issues of greater concern to Israel. While other Middle Eastern leaders complain of an aloof and distant America, the Israeli prime minister finds himself hosting Secretary of State John Kerry nearly once a month. In short, Obama has boxed Netanyahu in.


As historical coincidence would have it, however, Ben-Gurion had to grapple with an analogous dilemma, and in doing so his activist school reached the zenith of its influence. In the mid-1950s, as radical pan-Arabism shook the region, the Eisenhower administration, which leaned toward the side of the Arab states, was singularly fixated on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The best way to achieve that goal, the President believed, was to force Israel to make painful territorial concessions.

And there was more. In 1955, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the charismatic young leader of Egypt and champion of pan-Arabism, had signed a massive arms deal with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower chose to interpret Nasser’s move as a hedge against Israel rather than a rejection of the West per se. Rolling back Israel could therefore also serve as a means of wooing Nasser away from the USSR. 

Not surprisingly, a significant gap in perception opened up between Jerusalem and Washington. The Americans fawned over Nasser; the Israelis increasingly saw him as an existential threat. As a result, Ben-Gurion was forced to adopt a bifurcated strategy. Wherever possible, he showed deference to the United States—making sure, for example, to cooperate with Eisenhower’s Arab-Israeli peace initiative. At the same time, in a practice that enraged the Americans, he did not refrain from launching aggressive border raids against his neighbors, including Egypt.

Events reached a high point in 1956 when, ignoring explicit American warnings, Israel launched a war against Egypt in concert with the French and the British. That coalition was itself very much the product of the preceding two years of Israeli activism. By demonstrating Israel’s willingness to act independently of Washington, and by showcasing considerable military prowess, Ben-Gurion had laid the groundwork for an alliance with France that in the next decade would prove a godsend to the newly independent Jewish state. It was, indeed, the French who roped the British into the coalition against Egypt.


Although much has changed since then, there is a good deal to be learned from this historical example. Specifically, if Israel were to revitalize Ben-Gurion’s activism in today’s circumstances, what goals would it pursue?

In addressing this question, Haivry himself argues in favor of “abandoning the preoccupation of the last decades with two issues at the expense of virtually all others: namely, the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat.” Ben-Gurion’s track record suggests otherwise, especially with regard to Iran.

In the 1950s, the Israeli leader’s top priority was arresting the advance of Egyptian military power. The Soviet arms deal gave Nasser an edge: an advantage that to Ben-Gurion represented a threat on the same order as the Iranian nuclear threat represents to Israel today. Indeed, if Ben-Gurion were reincarnated as an adviser to Netanyahu, he would undoubtedly draw a parallel between the rise of Iran as a nuclear power—and the American posture that has inadvertently facilitated that rise—and his own experience with Nasser.

Just like Egypt in the 1950s, Iran today presents a nexus of three key factors: malevolent intention, lethal capabilities, and strategic determination. None of Israel’s other antagonists on the Middle East scene exhibits such a multidimensional challenge. Al-Qaeda, to be sure, is fearsome. But Sunni jihadism in general is organizationally fragmented, militarily weak, and strategically inept. The danger it poses to Israel is real enough, but hardly rises to the level of an existential threat.

The primacy of the Iranian challenge raises a key question. If Ben-Gurion were alive today, would he urge Netanyahu to follow his example in 1956 and launch a strike against Iran that could, plausibly, turn into full-scale war? The answer is almost assuredly no.

Let’s assume that Israel actually possesses the military capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program (a big assumption). In the event that led to all-out military confrontation, it would lack great-power support, something that Ben-Gurion regarded as an absolute prerequisite. In 1956, he gave the order to attack only after he had ensured the backing of Britain and France. 

Netanyahu enjoys no such support today. Getting into a war with Iran all by himself would be easy enough. But getting out of it would require the good offices of the United States, which he cannot count on.


This, however, does not entirely nullify the activist option. Extrapolating from his behavior in 1954-55, but stopping short of war, Ben-Gurion would press forward with the most muscular policy possible, especially through an aggressive covert campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. All the while, using the model of Britain and France in 1956, he would search for actors willing to partner with Israel against Iran on the wider Mideast scene.

Granted, it is not entirely clear that such actors exist; but the possibility is insufficiently explored in Haivry’s analysis. For example, after discussing the three “clusters” of states in today’s Middle East, Haivry writes: “Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings.” He thereby scants one of the most striking developments of the last three years—namely, the confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, Saudi Arabia first and foremost.

A reincarnated Ben-Gurion would certainly investigate whether behind-the-scenes cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem was possible, and whether an activist foreign policy could help to solidify it. The arena offering the greatest potential for such cooperation is Syria, where shifting the balance against Iran’s proxy Hizballah is in the interest of both the Saudis and the Israelis. An additional advantage in Syria is that Netanyahu can act aggressively there without unduly complicating relations with Washington.

Of course, the impediments to cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh are considerable, and it would be difficult to pull off even a covert alignment with any effectiveness. But the Middle East is changing rapidly, and the stakes are very high. It would be a mistake to assume that yesterday’s impossibility will remain unthinkable tomorrow. 

Who knows? In the process of courting the Gulf states, Netanyahu might even find other partners whose cooperation he could not have foreseen. After all, Ben-Gurion planned neither the alliance with France nor the alignment with Britain. It was his activism that generated both relationships. Activism, he understood, was a form of advertisement.


Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. 


  • Aisha Too

    Ben-Gurion had it right. So did Ariel Sharon. Defend yourselves; don’t look for anyone else to defend you. If they offer to help, great; but you depend on yourselves.

  • LenMinNJ

    If Israel had international partners in its efforts against Iran, the partners must be willing to cooperate publicly with Israel. Covert agreements are not enough. It’s very unlikely that Saudi Arabia will stand up publicly as cooperating with Israel.

  • Brian O’Leary

    This article ignores one key fact, and that is that Israel is not a natural power in the region, but a Russian-Soviet garrison state with a tiny population and few natural resources. The only thing that sees the Israelis punching above their weight is their cache of several hundred nuclear weapons, as well as the fact that the US failed to retaliate after the USS Liberty incident, which emboldened the Israeli leadership. The relationship between Israel and the old powers is simply (and slowly) being “recalibrated” to the 1948-67 position, where Israel was seen as a minor nuisance with a well-organized and financially powerful domestic lobby behind it.

    • Charlie in NY

      Brian: Israel, by dint of its people and their creativity, has made itself into a regional power, otherwise it would have been wiped out in 1948. What they have they have worked for and earned. You don’t have to run to the conspiracy bank to explain Israel’s success, unless you don’t like the fact that Jews were able to re-establish their long lost state and are no longer subject to the whims of the majority (be they Muslims or Christians) who treated them as potentially disloyal second class residents within their polities – not terribly far removed from what you implicitly describe, by the way. It should be to Israel’s credit that it has achieved what it has with “few natural resources.” By way of comparison, just look at what the Muslim world has accomplished with its massive natural resources of oil. Of course, now with the large gas fields in the Mediterranean, who knows what Israel is set to accomplish. Finally, as to the USS Liberty incident, as you call it, with the publication a few years ago of the pilots radio messages (long known to the US), the simplest explanation is, as is often the case, the correct one. It was a tragic mistake. Were it otherwise, someone in the past 47 years would have leaked the information you assume is there. That you still refuse to accept that conclusion is your business, but then you have a one-size fits all answer “a well-organized and financially powerful domestic lobby.”

    • Beatrix17

      The leftist Israel infuriated the Soviets by allying herself with the West, first
      with France and then in 1967, America and Israel formed a partnership
      that still exists today.

      That was the year that Israel shot at the USS Liberty killing 34 Americans. Had
      the shooting been intentional, America wouldn’t have formed the lasting partnership with Israel that she did that same year. The date of the shooting was 6/8/67 during the 6 day war, and the ship was a American research ship in Egyptian waters. Egypt was one of the belligerents and Israel thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship.

      Israel had no interest in shooting at a harmless American research ship, any more than America wanted to shoot down an Iranian plane in 7/3/88 killing
      290 civilian passengers, 66 of them children. But we did.

      Propagandists who come on these web sites trying to blame Israel for
      accidental shootings and insisting that Jews deliberately kill children forget that terrible accidents have happened to America, too.

  • sapermktg

    There are other allies who could be directly involved with covert operations. The most obvious are the Kurds and Azeris. The Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah have mostly had a free ride in promoting terror. Israel could coordinate a campaign to humiliate them militarily and be in concert with key allies, who would directly benefit. A Free Kurdistan carved from Iraq and Syria would be a powerful, forceful new element in the Middle East. Israel is also a powerful player in Cyber warfare. We have not yet seen the potential to both harass and counterpunch with the Iranians and Hezbollah using Cyber, drones, and electronic devices. Israel today also has military, economic, and intelligence assets it did not have in the 1950′s. The alliance with Greece, Cyprus and others in the Mediterranean based on off-shore oil development is a significant factor. Israel has no need to depend on the US for military, but does need the US for diplomatic cover, intelligence and Cyber coordination and support in a covert war that has already been happening for several years. Do not underestimate the IDF; Iran has fought a Verdun style war and does not have the 21st century military capabilities. Iran also has no real allies to turn to if counter terror from minorities and neighbors, and depletion of Hezbollah proxies, should accelerate.

  • Richard Dawson

    Don’t forget that Eisenhower in those days was warning the world and especially the American public opinion about the dangers of the power of the “Military-industrial “elite echoing the sociologist Wright Mills. The fight now is among proxies Hezbollah is fighting now Al Qaeda in the Middle East and especially in Syria playing along with the lines of the United States, Russia and Iran. None of this countries want Al Qaeda in charge of the region ,the only country that is really supporting now Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabia, Because most of its members are Sunni Wahhabis and the Saudi Crown needs the support of them for religious reasons to be able to continue in power,the Saudi Crown is the protector of Islam and at the same time of the Mecca .

    Also Vladimir Putin has a especial connection with Israel through the orthodox Jews especially among the followers of the Lubabitch Rebbe that initially was opposed to the creation of Israel.Putin recently gave a conference at the Library of the Rebbe in Moscow and after that he wrote an article in the New York Times addressed to the Jews that live in New York were the Rebbe lived for many years in Crown Heights where he established his headquarters. At the end the fight is going to be among Saudi Arabia and Iran one Sunni and the other one Shia. America apparently is withdrawing from Syria but Russia is very well positioned there and is supporting Assad.

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