Until now, the strategic issue of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity – the so-called “bomb in the basement” – has been kept squarely on the back burner. Today, however, time is quickly running out for the Jewish State, and Israel’s new/old prime minister absolutely must reconsider this burning issue. From the standpoint of urgency, of course, the immediate problem is Iran.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has correctly indicated that Iranian nuclearization is issue number one. To manage this critical problem, Mr. Netanyahu also understands that Israel’s own nuclear doctrine will have to adapt. In this connection, a core element of strategic adaptation should concern purposeful patterns of Israeli nuclear disclosure.
From the start, Jerusalem’s nuclear policy has always been to keep Israel’s bomb quietly in the basement. Now, however, it is increasingly likely that a deliberately ambiguous nuclear deterrent may simply not work much longer. Mr. Netanyahu should recall that nuclear strategy is always a work in progress. In the absence of adaptation, it will inevitably fail to achieve its indispensable goals. This is true generically; it is not true exclusively for Israel.
To date, Israel’s nuclear ambiguity has done little to deter “ordinary” conventional enemy aggressions or acts of terror. To be sure, it has succeeded in keeping the country’s enemies from mounting genuinely existential attacks. But certain changes in strategic doctrine could still be necessary.
None of Israel’s foes presently has “the bomb,” but together – in any determined collaboration – they could already have acquired the capacity to mount attacks of genuinely existential magnitude. Acting collectively and purposefully, these states and their assorted insurgent proxies, even without nuclear weapons, could still have inflicted enormous harms upon the Jewish State.
Now, oblivious to the feeble call for meaningful sanctions by a plainly impotent “international community,” Tehran continues to “go nuclear.” Unless there is a prompt, comprehensive and sustained preemptive strike against Iran’s developing nuclear assets and infrastructures, an act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law, Israel will face an openly genocidal nuclear Iran. Yet, the prospect of such legally permissible defensive strikes is now already very low, and Israel will likely have to prepare to defend against a nuclear Iran with both ballistic missile defense (Arrow) and improved nuclear deterrence.
As my faithful readers in The Jewish Press already know, Iran is a state that might share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hizbullah or certain other terrorist proxy organizations. This means, among other things, that continued nuclear ambiguity might not remain sufficiently persuasive to ensure Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture.
Let me be more precise here. Prime Minister Netanyahu will understand that adequate deterrence of Iran could soon require some release of pertinent Israeli nuclear details. Concerning these details, less rather than more Israeli nuclear secrecy could be required. Ironically, perhaps, what will now need to be determined by the prime minister is the specific extent and subtlety with which Israel should communicate its nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities to Iran, and to certain other selected states and state surrogates in world politics.
The rationale for carefully constructed forms of nuclear disclosure would not lie in expressing the obvious. Instead, it would rest on the understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel’s security in a number of different ways, and that all of these ways could benefit the Jewish State to the extent that certain aspects of nuclear weapons and strategies were actually disclosed. The form and extent of such strategic disclosure could be more critical than ever before because the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, seems determined to proceed with a still one-sided “peace process.” For President Obama, as for his cliché-trapped Secretary of State, there is still only a “Two State Solution” on the peace horizon.
For the foreseeable future, Israel’s state enemies – especially Iran, Egypt (peace treaty notwithstanding) and Syria – 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. Mr. Ahmadinejad could even cast aside all of the usual considerations of rational behavior. Were this to happen, the Islamic Republic of Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is improbable, but it is assuredly not inconceivable.
To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry intolerable costs, Israel should properly exploit every relevant aspect and function of its own nuclear arsenal and doctrine. The success of Israel’s efforts will depend not only on its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter city”), but also upon the extent to which this critical choice is made known in advance to both enemy states (primarily Iran) and their non-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli preemption, it may not be enough to know only that Israel has the Bomb. These enemies may also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that they are pointed directly at high-value population targets.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s basement could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated 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 now, as Mr. Netanyahu surely understands, Israel’s bomb should remain ambiguous. But soon – at the very moment that Iran is discovered to be close to completing its own nuclear weapons capability – the Jewish State should put a prompt end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity. This is a recommendation that was made by Project Daniel, and communicated directly to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Prime Minister Netanyahu already understands that there could never be any reliable peace with a nuclear Iran. But if neither Israel nor the United States will undertake preemptive destruction of Iran’s nearly completed nuclear program (a strategic prospect that now seems increasingly plausible), Israel will then have to take its own bomb out of the basement. Such an essential end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity may still not be sufficient to save Israel from an eventual nuclear war with Iran, but it would surely be far better than continuing dangerously on the present course.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, April 17, 2009. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) was Chair of Project Daniel. Born in Switzerland (1945), he is Professor of International Law at Purdue, and is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.