Israel’s space programme both provides tangible capabilities to deal with security threats and projects a message of national might.

Israel’s space programme includes the capability to build, operate and launch satellites into space. In 1988, only seven years after the programme was established, Israel launched its first satellite, Ofeq-1.1 At that time, only seven countries had demonstrated an indigenous capability to develop and launch satellites. Given the high costs and risks involved in undertaking such an ambitious national project, it might appear surprising that a small country like Israel – even taking into consideration its acute security needs – would take on such a burden. The Israeli leadership’s strategic rationale for doing so is not obvious, inviting further consideration of the country’s national-security decision-making and goals.

Israel’s security concept is based on the understanding that it suffers from a significant quantitative inferiority against its rivals. To overcome this disadvantage, Israeli leaders have chosen to focus the country’s efforts on the development of a qualitative edge. One of the most significant elements of this strategy is the development of what has been called the country’s ‘Iron Wall’, a concept intended to convey to Israel’s enemies that the country is a regional power that cannot be defeated militarily.

Several aspects of Israel’s space programme contribute to the realisation of the Iron Wall concept. Firstly, Israel’s space programme provides significant tangible capabilities to deal with the threats imposed by Israel’s enemies. Secondly, and equally important, a national space programme that includes the ability to develop and launch satellites into space signals a high level of national capabilities. Israel’s achievements in space, whether civilian or military, project a clear message of national might. They emphasise the qualitative gap between Israel and its neighbours; contribute to the country’s accumulated achievements aimed at deterrence; and reinforce the image of the Iron Wall in the eyes of Israel’s enemies. All of this is accomplished without articulating an explicit military threat, which could provoke an unwanted chain reaction in the region.

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Isaac Ben Israel is Chairman of the Israeli Space Agency, and Head of the Security Studies Programme at Tel Aviv University.

Deganit Paikowsky is a senior researcher at the Yuval Neeman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security at Tel Aviv University, a non-resident scholar at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute and a consultant to the space committee of Israel’s National Council for Research and Development.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2017

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