The views expressed in this eight-column article on Project Daniel are solely those of Professor Louis René Beres, and may not reflect the opinions of any other members of Project Daniel, or of any government.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. As I have indicated again and again on these pages, Israel remains the openly declared national and religious object of Arab/Islamic genocide. This term is used here, again, in the literal and jurisprudential sense. It is not merely hyperbole or an exaggerated figure of speech.
What is Israel to do? How might Israel’s possible actions or inactions affect the likelihood of a regional nuclear war in the Middle East? And in what precise ways might a nuclear war actually begin between Israel and certain of its enemies? Here are some of Project Daniel’s original responses:
Israel’s nuclear weapons, unacknowledged and unthreatening, exist only to prevent certain forms of enemy aggression. This deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for certain massive enemy first strikes, especially for Arab and/or Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or biological weapons. For a limited time, Israel’s enemies are not yet nuclear. Even if this should change, Israel’s nuclear weapons could continue to reduce the risks of unconventional war as long as the pertinent enemy states were (1) to remain rational; and (2) to remain convinced that Israel would retaliate massively if attacked with nuclear and/or certain biological weapons of mass destruction.
But there are many complex problems to identify if a bellicose enemy state were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, problems that belie the seemingly agreeable notion of stable nuclear deterrence. Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” such a state could opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of the latter’s nuclear posture. Here, Israel would certainly respond, to the extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike.
Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal might surely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city or against a similarly high-value urban target. There would be no assurances, in response to this sort of aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets or even against the individual enemy state from which the aggression was launched.
What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or biological weapons? Here, The Group understood, Israel might still launch a reasonably proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation.
Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could still not be ruled out altogether. This is especially the case if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Again, Project Daniel had determined early on that the threshold of existential harms must be substantially lower than wholesale physical devastation. It would appear that there are now no logical or empirical reasons to modify this determination.
Faced with imminent and existential attacks, Israel, properly taking its cue, at least in part, from the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, could decide to preempt enemy aggression with conventional forces. Announced on September 20, 2002, this Bush-era American strategy affirms the enduring reasonableness of anticipatory self-defense under international law. If Israel were to draw upon such authoritative expressions of current U.S. policy, we reasoned, the targeted state’s response would determine Israel’s subsequent moves.
If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake nuclear counter-retaliation. If this enemy retaliation were to involve certain chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also determine to take a quantum escalatory initiative. Escalation dominance could be vital to Israel’s security in the midst of certain strategic crises.
If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is highly improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. On the other hand, said The Group, if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations as well as to Israeli military targets – an existential strike, for all intents and purposes – an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be ruled out. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity“; and accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.
It is exceedingly unlikely, we understood, but certainly not inconceivable, that Israel could decide at some point to preempt enemy state aggression with a defensive nuclear strike. While circumstances could surely arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational and also completely acceptable under international law (such a policy had been embraced by the United States in Joint Publication 3-12, Doctrine For Joint Nuclear Operations, 15 March, 2005), it is improbable that Israel would ever permit itself to reach such circumstances.
In our view, an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only if: (1) Israel’s state enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish State; (2) these enemy states had made explicit that their intentions paralleled their capabilities; (3) these states were authoritatively believed ready to begin a countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the minimum needed levels of damage-limitation, that is, levels consistent with its own national survival.
Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and the many countries that wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue. This would be the case so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability. From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this meant that Israel must now take proper steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
Louis René Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.