Latest update: January 10th, 2013
6. As only a distinctly last resort, Israel needs nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting. Although in the best of all possible worlds this residual need will never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use (Project Daniel made this avoidance a major point in its final report, “Israel’s Strategic Future,” presented to former then-Prime Minister Sharon in 2003), it still cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative” must take it seriously.
Among the possible and more or less probable paths to nuclear war fighting are the following: enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes.
Other pertinent paths to nuclear war fighting might include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks among Israel and regional enemy states, and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the Jewish State.
As long as it can be assumed that Israel is determined to endure, there are conditions where Jerusalem could resort to nuclear war fighting. This holds true if: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy 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 second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities.
It follows, from the standpoint of Israel’s nuclear requirements, that Jerusalem should prepare to do what is needed to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
7. Israel needs nuclear weapons for the also residual “Samson Option.” Although any such use of nuclear weapons, by definition, would be profoundly catastrophic, Israel is apt to reason that it would be better to “die with the Philistines” than to die alone. This sort of understanding is much more than a matter of Jewish honor, and also much more than a refutation of the so-called Masada complex (suicide without punishment of the aggressor). It could (depending upon awareness by enemy states) represent an integral and indispensable element of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.
Moreover, the biblical analogy is somewhat misleading. Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing – or even necessarily committing – “suicide.” For states, the criteria of “life” and “death” are hardly as clear-cut as they are for individual persons.
Finally, it is essential that Israel’s leaders, in considering possible uses of nuclear weapons, regard the Samson Option as one to be precluded by correct resort to all other nuclear options. Stated differently, a resort to the Samson Option by Israel would imply the complete failure of all other options, and of the failure of its nuclear weapons to provide essential national security.
We have seen that Israel needs nuclear weapons, among other purposes, to deter large conventional attacks, and all levels of unconventional attack by enemy states. Yet the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in meeting these needs is limited and exceedingly problematic. Even if the country should move toward partial or full disclosure of its nuclear weapons, Israel cannot reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for survival. This should be apparent to anyone who has watched the continuing unfolding and expansion of Iran’s expressly genocidal intentions.
Aware of these limitations, Israel must nonetheless seek to strengthen nuclear deterrence such that an enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike upon the Jewish State would be irrational. This means taking steps to convince the enemy state that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this important objective, Israel must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Where a rational enemy state considering an attack on Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might still choose to strike first, depending, of course, upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected outcomes of such an attack.
Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, any enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could still provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would, in fact, lack willingness to retaliate, and that enemy decision-makers perceived this lack correctly. In this perilous case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of any “confused signals” but rather because of certain specific Israeli intelligence and/or policy failures.
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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