Iran is already preparing, with the utmost seriousness, for an ultimate war of annihilation against Israel. For its part, the United States – as its “reward” to Israel for commendable restraint during the Gulf War – is pressuring Israeli leaders to further compromise their own security. Seemingly oblivious once again to the real bases of hostility in the region, the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush and Secretary of State James Baker effectively encourages a PLO/Hamas state west of the Jordan River, an affirmation of Palestinian “self-determination” that could end in a nuclear nightmare for all parties in the area.
Should the West Bank and Gaza become Palestine, Israel’s vulnerability to armed attack by Arab neighbors and Iran would increase markedly. Recognizing an improved balance of forces vis-à-vis Israel, a larger number of enemy states would calculate that they now confront a smaller, more beleaguered adversary – one deprived of former strategic depth, and one whose military forces are more preoccupied with Palestine than they ever were with the intifada. [The first intifada, which erupted on late 1987.] Fearing even total defeat, Israel could find itself resorting for the first time to threats of nuclear deterrence and, should the threats not be taken seriously, the actual retaliatory use of nuclear weapons.
Of course, one must compare the risks to Israel of a neighboring state of Palestine with those of continuing control over the territories. Should Israel remain in possession of West Bank and Gaza, a combined attack by several Arab states could benefit from the anti-Israel aggressions of the intifada, exploits that are apt to escalate under such conditions. Diverted from the central effort to resist Arab armies, Israel, because of its precarious rule over a hostile Palestinian population, could be weakened considerably. Yet its overall position is apt to be weakened less by rebellion than by another hostile state on its eastern borders. Israel, therefore, would be less inclined to threaten or to use nuclear weapons if Jerusalem maintained jurisdiction over the territories.
Even if the Palestinians and/or Iran actually favored a “Two-State Solution,” which they clearly do not, this would not reduce the incentive of present Arab governments and Iran to war against Israel. Indeed, it may well increase this incentive.
This means the critical factor in determining ultimate Israeli recourse to nuclear deterrence and/or nuclear weapons is the perceived effect of Palestine upon Israel’s vulnerability. Because this effect will almost certainly be greater than that of even the persistent and expanded uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, transforming the territories into an independent state would likely enlarge the risk of nuclear war in the region.
(Continued Next Week) Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.