In the 1950s, in response to the ring of Arab enmity around Israel, a grand strategy called the "periphery doctrine" was advanced by then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his advisers. It was interpreted by Arabs as an "outflanking doctrine" (p. 131). In the following years (1956-83), the doctrine was mainly operated by Israel's intelligence community (especially Mossad). It was not enshrined in Israel's official documents, let alone publicly discussed by academia and mass media. However, it not only ensured Israel's survival; it was internalized in Israel's strategic thinking.
Recent years have witnessed a new ring of hostility surrounding Israel, while the United States has partially withdrawn from the region. Israel has been facing the rise of Islam in Egypt, Turkey and Iran, rather than the Arab enmity of the 1950s. Now Israel's new periphery extends to Azerbaijan, Greece, Kenya, Uganda, Bulgaria and Romania.
Dramatic changes have taken place in Israel's security environment. What were the dynamics of the periphery doctrine in the years between 1956 and 1983? How should the doctrine be evaluated? Can a revised periphery doctrine deal with the new ring of hostility surrounding Israel in a more effective way? Readers will find answers with evolving interpretations in Periphery by Yossi Alpher, one of the most sophisticated professionals on Israeli strategy.
As a senior member of the intelligence community and a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Alpher has been engaged in an intelligence and strategic career for around three decades. Based on direct experience, personal memories and interviews regarding the periphery doctrine, Alpher ingeniously composes a grand narrative from varied perspectives. He then analyzes this little-known strategy and the implications for Israel's policy practice.
The book is divided into three sections. Section I (Chapters 1-9), "The Periphery Doctrine at Work" covers the dynamics of periphery doctrine from the 1950s to the late 1980s, as well as Israel's relationships with the shah's Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Morocco, Sudan, the Iraqi Kurds, the south Sudanese, the Maronites of Lebanon, and the Berber mountain communities of Morocco and Algeria. Based on a cost-benefit assessment, the next section, "Ramifications" (Chapters 10-14), evaluates the doctrine and draws lessons for a new phase in the future. In the final pages (Chapter 15), the author draws his conclusions.
According to Alpher, Israel conducted clandestine intelligence and strategic cooperation with the following three categories of potential partners: first, Arab states that were "threatened by militant Arab nationalism" or established partnerships with Israel; second, non-Arab and non-Muslim countries that "bordered on the Arab conflict states"; third, non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities that "lived within the conflict states" (p. xviii).
Alpher considers the periphery doctrine "a success: the benefits clearly outweighed the costs" (p. 138). First, it succeeded in furthering Israel's other interrelated strategies, particularly "great-power alliance" and "mass immigration" (p.136). On the one hand, Israel's periphery partners and operations promoted Israel's intelligence cooperation with the great powers (the United States, France and the United Kingdom), and sent the essential information to the world that "Israel was not alone" (p.19). On the other hand, the periphery doctrine enabled more Jews to immigrate to Israel from Iran, Morocco and Ethiopia. In return, the two grand strategies benefited Israel's periphery partners. For example, the Israeli-U.S. relationship remained "a key foundation of Israel's entire approach to the region" (p.101). Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Iraqi Kurds got material benefits from Israel's close relationship with the United States.
The periphery doctrine has a profound and far-reaching significance. Its "flagship operation," the triangular intelligence alliance among Turkey, the Shah's Iran and Israel, lasted more than two decades. In addition, Israel's relationship with Morocco led to a historic achievement: Morocco's mediation between Israel and Egypt in the 1970s.
Alpher does not ignore the flaws of the doctrine and assesses the viewpoints of Israeli skeptics. These are categorized into two groups, one "consisted of academics and related Arab affairs experts," and the other "mainly of military intelligence practitioners and commanders" (p. 88). Skeptics insist on the problematic assumption that Israel should deal with the Arab world as a whole, and Alpher does take these criticisms into account.
Alpher derives at least two lessons from the periphery doctrine and explains why some periphery operations "ended abruptly" (p. 71). First, Israel's nostalgia toward Iran is controversial. As Alpher argues, Israel assumed that the shared strategic interests between the shah's Iran and Israel "must through some form of historical determination or strategic norm" ... "continue to manifest itself in Israel's relations with Iran." As a result, Israel was little concerned about the dynamics of Iran's power structure, avoided defining the shah's Iran as "the object of intelligence collection," and even regarded the hostility of the Islamic Republic as a temporary threat — and then perpetuated wrong judgments at the strategic level (pp. 77-78, 143).
Second, Israel partnered with neighboring minorities or others "whose motives are essentially short term and even cynical" (p. 94). The Maronites of Lebanon exploited their relationship with Israel. The lesson: avoid relationships with neighboring minorities, while maintaining them with downtrodden minorities on the periphery, such as the Iraqi Kurds and the South Sudanese.
Is it necessary for Israel to develop a new periphery doctrine? Alpher believes that many non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East will be attracted to Israel in response to Islamic militants and terrorists, though Arab understanding of Israel's strategic intentions is always "varied and uneven" (p.131). In the near future, a new periphery doctrine should "contain the hostile impulses of Islamists in Iran, Turkey, and possibly Egypt" (p.119). More important, Israel should keep looking for avenues with either immediate Arab neighbors or Islamists.
The author is not concerned about Israel's developing countermeasures to the Islamists' "find(ing) ways to target a growing segment of Israeli civilian society" (p. 97). Obviously, the Islamists have been adjusting their tactics, so it is difficult to develop a doctrine to deal with them. In addition, will Israel try to involve more major powers (e.g., Russia and China) in its new periphery doctrine?
In addition to being a thought-provoking book on strategic history, Periphery lays the foundation for future research on a largely overlooked theme, and makes complex historical issues related to Israel's strategies accessible to both conscientious readers and scholars.