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After The Iraq Study Group: Reconsidering Israel’s Policy Of Nuclear Ambiguity


In view of the foolish report issued recently by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that unambiguously endorses a further weakening of Israel in order to garner greater Arab/Islamic support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Israel must now quickly re-examine all essential elements of its nuclear strategy. Of these myriad and inter-penetrating elements, none is more important than the core issue of disclosure versus “opacity.”

Notwithstanding Prime Minister Olmert’s “slip of the tongue” last month about Israeli nuclear weapons, no authentic policy revisions have yet been implemented in Jerusalem.

From the beginning, Israel’s policy on its nuclear weapons and doctrine has been to keep the bomb quietly in the “basement.” To be sure, this deliberate policy of nuclear ambiguity has done very little to deter “ordinary” conventional enemy aggressions or acts of terror. But it does seem to have been entirely adequate in keeping Israel’s foes from mounting existential attacks.

Of course, not one of Israel’s enemies presently has the bomb, but together they could actually still have acquired the capacity for attacks of existential magnitude. In principle, acting collectively and collaboratively, these states and their various insurgent surrogates – even without nuclear weapons – could still have inflicted intolerable harms upon the Jewish State.

In deterring existential attacks, the situation for Israel is now changing rapidly and dramatically. Understandably, Tehran is oblivious to the persistently hollow call for sanctions threatened by a fictitious “international community.” Tehran now continues to move systematically and purposefully toward its own nuclear capability.

An unexpected preemptive strike against Iran’s developing nuclear assets and infrastructures, by the United States and/or Israel, is a permissible act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law. Unless that happens, Israel will be facing a fully nuclear adversary that has called openly and repeatedly for its annihilation.

With this in mind, it is by no means clear that nuclear ambiguity will remain sufficiently persuasive to secure Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture. In my own judgment – and according to the uniquely informed calculations of Project Daniel – Israeli coexistence with a nuclear Iran would surely be contingent, inter alia, upon accepting apt forms of Israeli nuclear disclosure.

Here, some history must be recalled. On at least one occasion prior to Prime Minister’s Olmert’s recent comments, Israel’s “basement” doors were also opened just a bit. Shortly after coming to power as Prime Minister, Shimon Peres admitted that, indeed, there was an Israeli bomb.

Responding to press questions about the Oslo peace process and the probable extent of Israeli concessions, Peres remarked at the time that he would be “delighted” to “give up the Atom” if only the region would finally respect Israel’s right to exist. Although this remark was certainly not an intended expression of changed nuclear policy (rather, it was intended only to enhance the so-called peace process), it did make perfectly clear that the Israeli basement was not empty.

Some important questions arise. For Israel, will it now be enough that its many enemies understand for certain only that there are Israeli nuclear weapons and associated strategic policies? If not, if more details are required, should some carefully conceived level of nuclear disclosure now become official Israeli policy? The answers must be more than a simple “yes” or “no.” Obviously, the basic question of nuclear capability was already answered straightforwardly by the Peres’ “offer.”

What would now need to be determined is the precise extent of subtlety and detail with which Israel should communicate its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities to selected states and non-states in world politics.

Regrettably, this issue must now be raised and explored within the problematic context of the “Road Map” still being forced upon Israel by the United States, Russia, the European Community and the United Nations. As formal successor to the equally misconceived Oslo agreements, this naively codified pattern of endlessly unequal concessions by Israel should recall the ancient advice of Sun-Tzu. In the ART OF WAR, the reader is instructed: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

Strengthened by Oslo and the Road Map, Israel’s Islamic enemies – most notably Iran – are now rapidly reaching this pinnacle, while Israel is in fact becoming ever more distant from it. With the “peace process,” these state and non-state enemies may even be able to subjugate the IDF with virtually no risk to their own armies and insurgent operatives. A case in point is the recent Israeli war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, which stands as a clear reminder of the currently unfavorable (to Israel) correlation of regional forces.

During the middle-1980′s, certain leading scholars of Israeli security issues began to speak plainly about Israel’s nuclear strategy with reference to nuclear disclosure. These scholars asked whether this strategy should continue to be implicit, deliberately ambiguous and in the basement, or explicit, clearly articulated and out in the open. I entered this debate myself with a series of lectures at Israeli strategic studies centers in 1984 and 1985 and with the first edited book on the subject, Security Or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy in 1986.

Ironically, until only recently, this debate has drawn diminishing attention from scholars and strategists alike. Israel is clearly a member of the Nuclear Club. There is nothing more to say, suggest the thinkers and military planners. Case closed.

But, as it now seems to be more widely recognized, there is a very serious problem with such reasoning. The rationale for some forms of disclosure – for taking the bomb out of the basement – would assuredly not lie in simply expressing the obvious. Instead, it would inhere in the informed understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel’s security in a number of different ways.

All of these ways could benefit the Jewish State, to the extent that certain aspects of these weapons and strategies were disclosed. Indeed, the pertinent form and extent of disclosure could be more critical than ever before because of the wrongheaded peace process.

For the foreseeable future, Israel’s state enemies – especially Iran and Syria (but not excluding Egypt and Lebanon) will continue to enlarge and refine their conventional and unconventional military capabilities. Even if certain enemy state capabilities do not yet fully parallel their intentions, this could change very quickly.

This is especially the case with Iran, which might even cast aside all of the usual considerations of rational strategic behavior. Were this to happen, the Islamic Republic of Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm.

To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel must correctly exploit every component function of its nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s efforts will depend in large measure not only upon its particular configuration of “counterforce” (hard-target) and “counter-value” (city-busting) operations. It will also depend upon the extent to which this configuration is made known in advance to enemy states and non-state surrogates.

Before such an enemy is deterred from launching first-strikes against Israel, and before it is deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli preemption, it may not be enough that it knows that Israel simply has the bomb. It may also need to recognize that these Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks and that they are pointed menacingly at very high-value population targets.

Removing the bomb from Israel’s basement could significantly enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of secure and capable nuclear forces. Such an end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of successful nuclear deterrence, perceived willingness is always just as important as perceived capability.

For the moment, Israel’s bomb should likely remain fundamentally ambiguous. But the moment that Iran is discovered to be seriously close to completing its own nuclear capability, the Jewish State – among other things – should put a prompt end to its longstanding policy of intentional ambiguity.

Especially, if there is to be no successful preemptive destruction of Iran’s developing nuclear programs (a regrettable but increasingly probable expectation), Israel must soon be prepared to take its bomb out of the basement.

Copyright The Jewish Press, January 19, 2007. All rights reserved.

Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Chair of Project Daniel and Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

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