“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War” (Proverbs, 24:6)
In 1882, Leo Pinsker, a Jewish physician of Odessa, horrified by the pogroms of 1881, concluded (quite reasonably, to be sure) that anti-Semitism is an incurable psychosis. The remedy, he then adduced, must be for all Jews to accept the imperatives of self-help and self-liberation. Later, Theodore Herzl, having witnessed the spectacle of Alfred Dreyfus in France, wrote The Jewish State. An attempt to solve once and for all “The Jewish Question,” Herzl’s pamphlet was premised on the following core idea: “The nations in whose midst Jews live are all either covertly or openly anti-Semitic.” This means, he proceeded to argue, that a perfectly simple plan was needed. “Let the sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves.”
The necessary grant of sovereignty finally took effect in May 1948. The portion of the globe encompassed by this grant (a portion far less generous than what had originally been promised by Great Britain and by pertinent international law) was smaller than that occupied by certain counties in the state of California. But the world continues to begrudge the Jewish state even this tiny portion.
This same world now wishes to create a 23rd Arab state of “Palestine,” yet another enemy country that would be literally carved from the still-living body of Israel. Should this happen – now with the full support of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton – a unique security threat would imperil Israel. In the end, this threat could include assorted risks of both nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.
What should be Israel’s operational and doctrinal response to this emerging existential menace? Sooner rather than later, Israel will need to clarify and codify the most critical elements of its national nuclear strategy. One such element, albeit one that has generally been misunderstood, concerns the so-called “Samson Option.”
Taken in isolation, a Palestinian state would seemingly have no direct bearing on Israel’s nuclear posture. Yet, although obviously non-nuclear itself, Palestine could still diminish Israel’s capacity to wage certain essential forms of conventional war. This, in turn, could enlarge the Jewish State’s incentive to rely on unconventional weapons and policies in various circumstances.
Facing steadily growing dangers from a new Arab state that would act collaboratively with certain of the 22 other already-existing Arab states, Israel would feel compelled to bring elements of its long-secret nuclear strategy (the “bomb in the basement”) out into the open. Palestine could also be used militarily against Israel by other regional adversary states, whether it would actually wish to collaborate or not. Either way, for Israel the survival consequences could be considerable.
Israel’s nuclear strategy, while never articulated in any precise or public fashion, is oriented toward deterrence. The Samson Option refers to a presumed policy based upon an implicit threat of overwhelming nuclear retaliation for specific enemy aggressions. This policy would plausibly enter into force only where such aggressions threatened Israel’s national existence.
The real point of the Samson Option would never be to communicate the availability of a graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent. Rather, it would signal the unstated promise of a massive counter city (“counter value” in military parlance) reprisal. To be sure, the Samson Option per se is not likely to deter any aggressions short of nuclear and/or certain biological first strike attacks upon the Jewish State.
More than anything else, “Samson’s” overriding rationale would be to bring the following message to potential attackers: “We (Israel) may have to die, but (this time) we won’t die alone.” For this reason, the Samson Option could serve Israel better as an essential adjunct to deterrence and certain preemption options than as a core nuclear strategy. The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s core nuclear strategy which targets deterrence at far less apocalyptic levels of conflict.
How can the Samson Option best serve Israel’s strategic requirements? Although the primary mission of Israel’s still undisclosed nuclear weapons must be to preserve the Jewish State – not to wreak havoc or vengeance in a spasm of last-resort reprisals – recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could still enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption capabilities.
Concerning Israeli nuclear deterrence, visible and identifiable preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince certain enemy states that aggression would not be gainful. This is especially true if Israeli “Samson” preparations were coupled with some level of nuclear disclosure (i.e., ending Israel’s posture of nuclear ambiguity); if Israel’s “Samson” weapons appeared sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first strikes; and if these weapons were plainly “counter city” in mission function. In view of what nuclear strategists sometimes refer to as the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could also assist Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating an Israeli willingness to take certain existential risks.
To a variable extent, the nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend upon prior enemy state awareness of Israel’s counter city targeting posture. Exactly such a posture had been recommended more than six years ago by the private “Project Daniel Group,” in its then-confidential report to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In reference to strategies of preemption, Israeli preparations for a Samson Option, again purposely recognizable, could convince Israel’s own leadership that defensive first-strikes would be safe to undertake. These leaders would expect that Israeli preemptive strikes, known under international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” could be undertaken with reduced expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This expectation would depend upon prior Israeli decisions on nuclear disclosure; on Israeli perceptions of the effects of such disclosure on enemy retaliatory intentions; on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability; and on presumed enemy awareness of Samson’s counter city force posture. As in the case above, concerning Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence, last-resort nuclear preparations could enhance Israel’s preemption options by displaying a bold national willingness to take existential risks.
But pretended irrationality can be a double-edged sword. Israeli leaders must remain mindful of this. Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could encourage enemy preemptions.
Left to themselves, neither deterred nor preempted, certain Arab/Islamic enemies of Israel, especially after creation of a Palestinian state, could threaten to bring the Jewish State face-to-face with the considered torments of Dante’s Inferno, “Into the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice.” It is essential, therefore, that Israeli strategic planners and political leaders now begin to acknowledge their obligation to strengthen the country’s nuclear security posture, and to take all necessary steps to ensure that any failure of nuclear deterrence will not spark regional nuclear warfare.
One important way to meet this vital obligation would be to focus more explicitly on the Samson Option. To ignore this option could imperil and undermine Herzl’s territorial/ideological remedy for the Jewish Question.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli security matters. He was Chair of Project Daniel, and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.