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.
Both Israeli nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. In any event, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would obviously be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors were allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate Israeli and/or American preemptions.
Should such deployment be allowed to take place, Israel might effectively forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Here its only alternatives to nuclear preemption could be a no-longer viable conventional preemption or simply waiting to be attacked itself. It follows, said The Group, that the risks of an Israeli nuclear preemption, of nuclear exchanges with an enemy state, and of enemy nuclear first strikes could all be reduced by certain timely Israeli and/or American non-nuclear preemptions. These preemptions would be directed at critical military targets and/or at pertinent regimes. As explained by Project Daniel, the latter option could possibly include dedicated elimination of particular enemy leadership elites and/or certain enemy scientists.
Project Daniel examined some of the precise ways in which a nuclear war might actually begin between Israel and its enemies. From the standpoint of preventing such a war, it is essential, we reasoned, that Israel protect itself with suitable policies of preemption, defense and deterrence. This last set of policies will depend substantially upon whether Israel continues to keep its bomb in the “basement” or whether it decides to change formally from a nuclear posture of deliberate ambiguity to one of selected and deliberately partial disclosure.
In one respect, the issue is already somewhat moot. Shortly after coming to power as prime minister, Shimon Peres already took the unprecedented step of openly acknowledging Israel’s nuclear capability. Responding to press questions about the Oslo peace process and the probable extent of Israeli concessions, Peres remarked that he would be “delighted” to “give up the Atom” if the entire region would only embrace a comprehensive security plan. Although this remark was certainly not an intended expression of changed nuclear policy, it did raise the question of a more tangible Israeli shift away from nuclear ambiguity. Certain public remarks by later Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and also certain recent missile tests in Israel, may have had similarly shifting effects.
Project Daniel recognized that the nuclear disclosure issue is far more than a simple “yes” or “no.” Obviously, the basic question had already been answered by Peres’ “offer.” What still needs to be determined is the exact timing of purposeful disclosure and the extent of subtlety and detail with which Israel should actually communicate its nuclear capabilities and intentions to selected enemy states. This issue was central to the deliberations of Project Daniel, which concluded in 2003 that Israel’s bomb should remain in the basement as long as possible, but also that it should be revealed in particular contours if enemy circumstances should change in an expressly ominous fashion.
Because the Project Daniel report stipulated the need for an expanded Israeli doctrine of preemption, this Project Daniel statement on nuclear ambiguity meant that Israel should promptly remove the bomb from its “basement” if, for whatever reason, Israel should have failed to exploit the recommended doctrine of preemption. Today, with President Obama in the White House, deliberate nuclear ambiguity seems even more out-of-date. Nonetheless, this is a very subtle strategic issue that requires immediate and careful attention in capable and authoritative quarters.
An antecedent issue of overriding importance is Mr. Obama’s oft-stated goal of a “world free of nuclear weapons.” Such a world, of course, would likely bring about the literal end of Israel. Without nuclear weapons, ambiguous or disclosed, Israel would sooner or later face the full fury of Clausewitz’s phrase, “Mass counts.”
Project Daniel understood that the rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure does not lie in expressing the obvious; that is, that Israel simply has “the bomb.” Rather, it lies in the critical 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 these weapons and associated strategies are appropriately disclosed. The pertinent form and extent of disclosure would be especially vital to Israeli nuclear deterrence.
Exactly what this particular form and extent should be has yet to be determined. It should, therefore, now be considered a question of authentically supreme importance to Israel’s strategists.
To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Project Daniel recommended that Israel exploit every component function of its nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s efforts, we acknowledged, will depend in large measure not only upon its chosen configuration of counterforce(hard-target) and counter-value (city-busting) operations, but also upon the extent to which this configuration is made known in advance to enemy states. Before such an enemy is deterred from launching first-strikes against Israel, or before it is deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli preemption, it may not be enough that it simply “knows” that Israel has the Bomb. It may also need to recognize that these Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks and that they are aimed at very high-value targets.
In this connection, and as indicated earlier here, the Final Report of Project Daniel recommended”a recognizable retaliatory force should be fashioned with the capacity to destroy some 15 high-value targets scattered widely over pertinent enemy states in the Middle East.” This counter-value strategy meant that Israel’s second-strike response to enemy aggressions involving certain biological and/or nuclear weapons would be unambiguously directed at enemy populations, not at enemy weapons or infrastructures. Looking over the evolution of pertinent existential threats to Israel over the past eight years, it seems that our original recommendation was correct.
It may appear, at first glance, that Israeli targeting of enemy military installations and troop concentrations (counterforce targeting) could be both more compelling as a deterrent, and also more humane. But it is likely, even plausible, that a nuclear-armed enemy of Israel could regard any Israeli retaliatory destruction of its armed forces as “acceptable” in certain circumstances. Such an enemy might conclude, for example, that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel would outweigh any expected retaliatory harms to its military. Here, Israel’s nuclear deterrent would fail, possibly with existential consequences.
Louis René Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.