Israel’s Policy Of Nuclear Ambiguity
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, following a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that makes any preemption against Iran more problematic, deliberate nuclear ambiguity seems even more out-of-date.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.
Project Daniel understood that the rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure does not lie in expressing the obvious; which is, that Israel has the bomb. Instead, 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 in this “retrospective,” 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 five years, it seems that our original recommendation was entirely 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.
It is highly unlikely, The Project Daniel Group recognized, that any enemy state would ever calculate that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel would be so great as to outweigh the expected costs of its own annihilation. Excluding an irrational enemy state − a prospect that falls by definition outside the logic of nuclear deterrence – all state enemies of Israel would assuredly refrain from nuclear and/or biological attacks upon Israel that would presumptively elicit massive counter-value reprisals. Naturally, this reasoning would obtain only to the extent that these enemy states fully believed that Israel would actually make good on its threats.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent, once it were made open and appropriately explicit, would need to make clear to all prospective nuclear enemies the following: “Israel’s nuclear weapons, dispersed, multiplied and hardened, are targeted upon your major cities. These weapons will never be used against these targets except in retaliation for certain WMD aggressions. Unless our population centers are struck first by nuclear attack or certain levels of biological attack or by combined nuclear/biological attack, we will not harm your cities.”
This reasoning, we knew, will disturb some readers and policy-makers. Yet, the counter-value targeting strategy recommended by Project Daniel still represents Israel’s best hope for avoiding a nuclear or biological war. It remains, therefore, the most humane strategy available. The Israeli alternative, an expressed counterforce targeting doctrine, would produce a markedly higher probability of nuclear or nuclear/biological war. And such a war, even if all weapons remained targeted on the other side’s military forces and structures (a very optimistic assumption) would entail enormously high levels of “collateral damage.”
The very best weapons, Clausewitz wrote, are those that achieve their objectives without ever actually being used. This is especially the case with nuclear weapons; Israel’s nuclear weapons can succeed only through non-use. Recognizing this, Project Daniel made very clear in its Final Report to then Prime Minister Sharon that nuclear war fighting must always be avoided by Israel wherever possible. Nothing has happened in the past five years to − in any way − change this judgment.
The Project Daniel Group recommended that Israel do whatever it must to prevent enemy nuclearization, up to and including pertinent acts of preemption. Should these measures fail, measures that would be permissible under international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” the Jewish State should immediately end its posture of nuclear ambiguity with fully open declarations of counter-value targeting. Again, just how this imperative cessation would take operational shape is a question that now needs to be addressed squarely and expertly in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, September 5, 2008. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, chair of Project Daniel, is the Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.