What does ‘strategic patience’ look like for Israel?

Israel is being called on to exercise ‘restraint’ by allies that stood up and fought alongside the Jewish State when it mattered.

However, the timing of this call is somewhat ironic. Iran has long prided itself on its foreign policy doctrine of ‘strategic patience’. Now Israel is being called to exercise ‘strategic patience’ at exactly the moment when it’s enemy’s patience appears to have run out.

‘Strategic patience’ would require a significant reversal from normal Israeli security doctrine. This holds that any attack will be met with an immediate, often disproportionate response. The reason is deterrence – to make such attacks less likely to happen again, the enemy must suffer pain for its attack, and when it thinks about attacking again, it will remember the pain and stop.

Behind this sits a further set of reasons – the perceived psychology of the enemy (‘force is the only language they understand’), the apparent psychology of Israel (‘I am not a Jew with trembling knees’, to recall former prime minister, Menachem Begin), the opportunity to land a blow that could seriously degrade its enemy’s capabilities, and the underlying realpolitik in which Israel’s attractiveness as a partner to its regional neighbours is linked closely to having, and being seen to have, a qualitative military edge.

But if one acts on autopilot, with rigidity, it is also stupid. Being predictable is stupid. If being predictable means weakening yourself, it is stupid.

Strength consists not only of hard power. Strength is also a strong economy. It is a strong set of alliances. It is affinity with peoples worldwide through cultural sympathies. These are all forms of ‘soft power’. Power in its various guises is considered to be fungible. For example, without a strong economy, ultimately you lose your hard power – hard power requires money to buy or develop the latest military hardware. This is what Reagan understood and the underlying reason why the Soviet Union fell.

But just as importantly, without hard power, all your economic and cultural soft power advantages may stand for little. European countries are fast re-learning this lesson in the face of a revitalised Russia, and the Gulf Countries already understand this very well.

So there is a need for a country to blend hard and soft power, and this blend impacts the choice of response – retaliation or patience.

What should be the test for whether Israel should stick with its existing doctrine or consider strategic patience?

Whatever maximises Israel’s strength – across both hard and soft power dimensions – relative to its enemies.

First, Israel should emphasise that this is not a game, as it seems sometimes to be treated in the media. Iran openly declares its exterminationist rhetoric. Over 9 million lives are at risk. After October 7th, no one can doubt the intent of Iran or its proxies. To paraphrase the slogan, ‘never again’ continues to be now.

Second, ‘strategic patience’ must be linked to coordinated action with Israel’s allies to counter Iran. There must be a quid pro quo. Given the significant risks to Israel of not responding, a robust alternate path to deterrence must be established.

Third, Israel should indefinitely reserve the right to respond forcefully. It should defer its response only in so long as ‘strategic patience’ yields more effective outcomes than a forceful response. This should be expressed strongly to Israel’s allies. Israel’s allies appear to have very significant interest in averting further violence, therefore Israel must use this as leverage in negotiating the outcomes it wants.

Fourth, Israel should think clearly and strategically about its objectives and express to its allies – quietly, in private discussions – the minimum set of measures necessary to achieve them.

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations (UN) last night stated to the Security Council that Iran ‘does not seek an escalation or war in the region’. It should be called out on these words.

Indeed, these words provide the basis for Israel to call on its allies, as part of a united international front, to take the four following measures, which if enforced upon Iran could then avert the otherwise necessary forceful response by Israel to restore deterrence:

Measure 1: Iran must roll back its nuclear program and agree to renew intrusive IAEA inspections. The Iranian nuclear program is the ultimate escalation and the first major source of regional instability.

Measure 2: Iran must halt the flow of weapons to militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories, as well as the Syrian Army. The militias are the second major source of regional instability. US and allied forces in Syria should be beefed up to monitor, call out and where necessary disrupt the well-known weapons transfer routes from Iran to Hezbollah and the Syrian Army. Similar measures should be agreed concerning supply routes to the Houthis and Iraqi militias. Militia-operated weapons factories in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories should be identified and destroyed – by Israel, or by its Allies.

Measure 3: The IRGC should be immediately proscribed by all Allied countries as a terrorist group. Tough sanctions should be imposed on all those providing the IRGC, and all of Iran’s proxies, with financing and logistics support. This includes requiring states sheltering the Hamas overseas leadership to hand over Hamas’ leaders for international trial.

Measure 4: Iran should be called out for its inciteful and hateful rhetoric, and monitored accordingly. It should be requested to confirm its respect for the principles of the UN Charter, specifically as concerns Israel, in particular its Article 2 obligations, which inter alia include recognition of “the sovereign equality of all Members”, a requirement that “all Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered”, and a requirement that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. Failure to confirm respect for the fundamental principles of the UN Charter should result in suspension of Iran’s membership and voting rights in UN organs and a very stringent package of sanctions.

These may seem like impossible asks, that Iran will never agree. This is the point. When Iran does not agree, it gives the required legitimacy then for progressively stepping up coordinated international action against Iran.


About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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