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Changes Ahead? American Nuclear Policy And Israeli Strategic Doctrine (Part I)


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From the beginning, Israel has successfully managed to craft its overriding strategic doctrine apart from any specific U.S. expectations. To be sure, keeping its “bomb in the basement” has been at least partially a response to expressed American wishes. After all, any explicit end to nuclear ambiguity could have proven unacceptable to Washington. Still, all other core doctrinal considerations of nuclear force structure, basing, targeting and nuclear retaliatory thresholds have likely been fashioned, quite correctly, to suit only Israel.

It is conceivable, of course, that Israel’s decision thus far to resist any preemptive action against Iranian nuclear infrastructure targets does reflect, at least in part, a dutiful friendly-state compliance with President Barack Obama’s “rules.” On this point, however, it is too early to know for sure. There are also many significant operational factors to take into account. The Israel Air Force, despite its indisputably unique capabilities and high quality, may simply be too small for so demanding a task.

President Obama does have his own broad vision of nuclear weapons and strategic doctrine; it expresses an oft-declared preference for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Although this presidential hope is plainly unattainable andonly selectively desirable, Israel cannot ignore it. Rather, political leaders and senior planners in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv will now need to shape and re-shape certain elements of Israel’s own strategic doctrine with precisely this inherently vague American vision in mind. This is the case even though the reduced American nuclear stockpile will inevitably stay substantially robust, and in spite of the understanding that Israel would never entirely abandon its own nuclear weapons.

For Israel, the only relevant strategic policy danger lies in the fact that national nuclear capacity must always exist on a continuum; it is never merely a dichotomous (nuclear versus non-nuclear) distinction. If Washington were to demand that Israel begin to trim back its nuclear forces and postures in order to be in synch with any new American partial denuclearization, and/or with codified NPT expectations, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could still find itself under some very compelling pressures to comply. Ironically, this danger would flow from the Obama nuclear vision solely because that particular vision had spurred a far less than complete U.S. withdrawal from military nuclear options.

Strategic doctrine is anet. In the abundantly complex and interpenetrating worlds of war and peace, only those who cast will catch. Without an appropriate and fully up-to-date doctrine that takes certain developing Washington visions into close account, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) could be less able to conform its essential order of battle to the changing and increasingly lethal requirements of the regional battlefield. At a minimum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to consider that the New START agreement between the U.S. and Russia could effectively leave the much wider threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terror unrelieved.

What needs to be done in Israel?

First, Israeli leaders and military strategists should now look directly at their country’s principal existential threats, organize these primary threats hierarchically (in terms of both their probability and disutility), and carefully correlate the diligently enumerated perils with purposeful remedies. To the extent that the Obama vision, with its expressly-diminished reliance on nuclear deterrence, could ultimately put extreme pressure on Israel to denuclearize, such a correlation could spur Jerusalem/Tel Aviv to move much more urgently toward certain plausible forms of preemption/anticipatory self-defense, and/or to nuclear disclosure.

Second, Israeli leaders and strategists should begin to plan with the basic understanding that (a) Israel is a system; (b) existential threats confronting the Israeli system are interrelated (synergistic); and (c) effects of these interrelated threats upon the Israeli system must always be examined together.

How will these effects likely be impacted by President Obama’s determined search for “a world free of nuclear weapons?” How should Israel compensate for any resultant expansion of security vulnerabilities?

As its multiple enemies in the Middle East escalate their not so obviously disingenuous proposals for a nuclear weapon free zone in the region, how can Jerusalem/Tel Aviv best resist such deceptively appealing plans for “peace?” Somehow, Israel must make clear that the seeming fairness of a nuclear-free Middle East would unfairly imperil Israel. This clarity will be especially difficult to communicate so long as President Obama, still unable to recognize that a regional nuclear weapon free zone is merely a clever enemy expedient to weaken Israel, remains in plain sympathy with such a sorely mistaken idea.

Third, Israeli leaders and strategists should quickly understand that, conceptually, the entire world is now best understood as a system, and that the incremental disintegration of power and authority structures within this wider macro-system will impact, with enormous and at-least partially foreseeable consequences, the Israeli micro-system.

How will this particular impact be enlarged or reduced by President Obama’s now-codified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unwillingness to respond to chemical or biological attacks with American nuclear reprisals? In critical matters of national defense and deterrence, will this unwillingness force Israel to become even more “self-help” oriented than in the past? In a world of international anarchy, each state must seek, above all, to maintain and maximize its own power position. Israel is no exception.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is the author of ten books and several hundred scholarly articles dealing with international relations and international law. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, he lectures and publishes widely on nuclear matters in the United States, Europe and Israel. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, Dr. Beres was the Chair of Project Daniel (Israel).

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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