The Geopolitics Of Israel: Biblical And Modern by Stratfor


The founding principle of geopolitics is that place – geography – plays a significant role in determining how nations will behave. If that theory is true, then there ought to be a deep continuity in a nation’s foreign policy. Israel is a laboratory for this theory, since it has existed in three different manifestations in roughly the same place, twice in antiquity and once in modernity. If geopolitics is correct, then Israeli foreign policy, independent of policymakers, technology or the identity of neighbors, ought to have important common features. This is, therefore, a discussion of common principles in Israeli foreign policy over nearly 3,000 years.

For convenience, we will use the term “Israel” to connote all of the Hebrew and Jewish entities that have existed in the Levant since the invasion of the region as chronicled in the Book of Joshua. As always, geopolitics requires a consideration of three dimensions: the internal geopolitics of Israel, the interaction of Israel and the immediate neighbors who share borders with it, and Israel’s interaction with what we will call great powers, beyond Israel’s borderlands.

Israel in Biblical Times

Israel has manifested itself three times in history. The first manifestation began with the invasion led by Joshua and lasted through its division into two kingdoms, the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah and the deportation to Babylon early in the sixth century B.C.

Geopolitics Of Israel

The second manifestation began when Israel was recreated in 540 B.C. by the Persians, who had defeated the Babylonians. The nature of this second manifestation changed in the fourth century B.C., when Greece overran the Persian Empire and Israel, and again in the first century B.C., when the Romans conquered the region.

Geopolitics Of Israel

The second manifestation saw Israel as a small actor within the framework of larger imperial powers, a situation that lasted until the destruction of the Jewish vassal state by the Romans.

Israel’s third manifestation began in 1948, following (as in the other cases) an ingathering of at least some of the Jews who had been dispersed after conquests. Israel’s founding takes place in the context of the decline and fall of the British Empire and must, at least in part, be understood as part of British imperial history.

Geopolitics Of Israel

During its first 50 years, Israel plays a pivotal role in the confrontation of the United States and the Soviet Union and, in some senses, is hostage to the dynamics of these two countries. In other words, like the first two manifestations of Israel, the third finds Israel continually struggling among independence, internal tension and imperial ambition.

Israeli Geography and Borderlands

At its height, under King David, Israel extended from the Sinai to the Euphrates, encompassing Damascus. It occupied some, but relatively little, of the coastal region, an area beginning at what today is Haifa and running south to Jaffa, just north of today’s Tel Aviv. The coastal area to the north was held by Phoenicia, the area to the south by Philistines. It is essential to understand that Israel’s size and shape shifted over time. For example, Judah under the Hasmoneans did not include the Negev but did include the Golan. The general locale of Israel is fixed. Its precise borders have never been.

Thus, it is perhaps better to begin with what never was part of Israel. Israel never included the Sinai Peninsula. Along the coast, it never stretched much farther north than the Litani River in today’s Lebanon. Apart from David’s extreme extension (and fairly tenuous control) to the north, Israel’s territory never stretched as far as Damascus, although it frequently held the Golan Heights. Israel extended many times to both sides of the Jordan but never deep into the Jordanian Desert. It never extended southeast into the Arabian Peninsula.

Geopolitics Of Israel

Israel consists generally of three parts. First, it always has had the northern hill region, stretching from the foothills of Mount Hermon south to Jerusalem. Second, it always contains some of the coastal plain from today’s Tel Aviv north to Haifa. Third, it occupies area between Jerusalem and the Jordan River — today’s West Bank. At times, it controls all or part of the Negev, including the coastal region between the Sinai to the Tel Aviv area. It may be larger than this at various times in history, and sometimes smaller, but it normally holds all or part of these three regions.

Geopolitics Of Israel

Israel is well-buffered in three directions. The Sinai Desert protects it against the Egyptians. In general, the Sinai has held little attraction for the Egyptians. The difficulty of deploying forces in the eastern Sinai poses severe logistical problems for them, particularly during a prolonged presence. Unless Egypt can rapidly move through the Sinai north into the coastal plain, where it can sustain its forces more readily, deploying in the Sinai is difficult and unrewarding. Therefore, so long as Israel is not so weak as to make an attack on the coastal plain a viable option, or unless Egypt is motivated by an outside imperial power, Israel does not face a threat from the southwest.