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An Apocalyptic Future? Israel And Middle East Nuclear War (First Of Two Parts)


Beres-Louis-Rene

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A Lecture Delivered To The Dawn R. Schuman Institute Evanston, Illinois – September 9, 2004

Apocalypse, of course, was pretty much a Jewish invention (at least if you ignore ancient Persia and the Zoroastrians), and there is certainly an apocalyptic element in Chicago’s own Saul Bellow.

Bellow writes about the Jews in his work, “Ravelstein”: “Only for ‘the chosen,’ there is no choice. Such a volume of hatred and denial of the right to live has never, anywhere else, been heard or felt, and the will that willed their (Jewish) death was confirmed and justified by a vast collective agreement that the world would be improved by their disappearance and by their extinction.”

This is very strong…. an altogether unsentimental, no-holds-barred image of the individual Jew as victim…. not just as another victim, but as a unique victim…. a victim of a near-universal consensus on the desirability of his annihilation. Strong but correct. History, of course, confirms Bellow.

Moreover, today, the age-old inclinations to homicide of Jews have been transformed into genocidal inclinations toward the Jewish state. Today, Israel is the individual Jew “writ large,” the individual Jew in macrocosm. What was once feared at the level of Jews as individuals and as a people is now being directed at the codified and institutionalized Jewish nation – the imperiled State of Israel. Today, with an undiminished threat of selective Arab and/or Iranian nuclearization, the prospect of a Middle Eastern nuclear war involving Israel is real – very real indeed.

Over the years, I have been closely involved with Israeli nuclear issues. About a dozen years ago, I had a fateful lunch in Tel-Aviv with Yuval Ne’eman – one of the world’s leading nuclear physicists and a principal figure in creating Israel’s undisclosed nuclear armaments. At that lunch, Yuval and I shared the view that the single most ominous threat facing Israel – a genuinely existential threat – was an enemy (state or non-state) who was irrational, and who had acquired nuclear weapons.

In such a dire circumstance, Israeli deterrence, by definition, would be immobilized and the only safe path for Israel would lie in some combination of ballistic missile defense and preemption (defensive first strikes). The real problem here is that the so-called “safe path” – however fashioned – is itself almost surely unsafe. Preemption against a capable nuclear adversary (e.g., Iran) would be an operational nightmare. And ballistic missile defense, however well-perfected (e.g., the “Arrow”) would not be “leak proof”.

So, what is Israel to do?

This was the question that led me first to former Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval – with whom I discussed the idea of a special “brain trust.” I then went on to discuss this issue with five very special individuals who ultimately came to comprise “Project Daniel.” These are: Maj. Gen. Dr. Itzik BenIsrael (Israel Air Force/Ret.); Naaman Belkind (retired from Israel Atomic Energy Commission and Israel Ministry of Defense); Dr. Adir Pridor (Israel Air Force/Ret., former head of military analyses for RAFAEL); Col. Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto (Israel Air Force/Ret. and Former MK); Dr. Rand Fishbein (President of Fishbein Associates and former senior Senate staffer); and myself as Chair.

At our very first meeting, we took up the “Beres/Ne’eman thesis,” that is, that the greatest danger facing Israel today would be a fusion of nuclear capacity with a willful irrationality (the “suicide-bomber in macrocosm”).

At that same meeting – the first of several over a two-year period in New York and Washington – we decided that the truly greatest threat – from the standpoint of probability as well as of seriousness – was a “normal” or rational adversary with such WMD capability. And, from here, we proceeded to study and make pertinent and rather precise recommendations concerning Israel’s strategic posture.

Writing in his very first book, Night, Elie Wiesel said: “Everything is possible.”

Today, most of the Arab/Islamic world focuses its genocidal hatred on the Jewish state, exactly as Europe once focused this hatred on individual (and stateless) Jews. There is no greater Jewish responsibility than to prevent a second Holocaust – and it is nothing short of Holocaust that the Arab/Islamic world now wishes for Israel.

Israel is half the size of Lake Michigan. Just how much of a nuclear beating could it take? If an Arab/Islamic enemy state were ever to acquire nuclear weapons, it could conceivably calculate – rationally – the expected benefits of a first-strike against “the Zionist entity.” The expected flesh and blood consequences of such a strike are already well-known to most people who can recall the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

It follows very plainly that Israel must now do whatever is necessary to protect itself from enemy nuclear aggression, including timely preemptive attacks against relevant enemy hard target – even if the risks of failure are formidable. Also, Israel must prepare for recognizable and massive countercity nuclear reprisals, as a credible deterrent to enemy nuclear attack.

International law is not a suicide pact. Under authoritative international rules, such expressions of “anticipatory self-defense” and nuclear deterrence could be entirely permissible. Even the UN’s International Court of Justice said as much in its Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons several years ago.

Israel cannot afford to make the same security mistakes on this existential issue that it made earlier in the Oslo Accords, and is now continuing to make with the so-called “Road Map.”

Here, in the apocalyptic realm of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, mistakes would be final and unforgiving.

Iran and possibly certain Arab states could even become suicide bombers in macrocosm ? willing to strike first even at the risk of absorbing devastating Israeli reprisals. Tactically and politically, Israeli preemptions would best be conducted in tandem with the United States. But if there should be no alternative to acting alone, solitary defensive strikes against hard targets would be preferable to waiting helplessly for a second Holocaust.

(To be continued)

Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs Columnist for The Jewish Press.

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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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