The following originally appeared in The Jewish Press in March 1992. Today, nearly twenty years later, its arguments remain timely and valid.
At the conclusion of the recent [Editor’s Note: the first] Gulf War [Operation Desert Storm], the Bush administration announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia, a country of six million inhabitants, an arms package including over 500 tanks, 48 F-15 fighter planes, Apache helicopter gunships, more than 30 Patriot batteries, tens of thousands of armored vehicles, multiple rocket-launchers and command/control systems.
Rationalizing the Saudi demand for this vast arsenal by pointing to the “growing danger from Iran,” the Bush administration ignored the reality that such American arms can be used for direct or indirect aggression against Israel. While a Saudi Arabia that joined in the coalition to defeat Saddam now appears relatively benign, this monarchy has been busily compensating the Assad regime in Syria with billions of dollars in aid – money to be used entirely for Syria’s ongoing military buildup.
During the past several months, Pakistan has received new M-11 missiles from China; Brazil may have concluded a secret deal with the Libyan Air Force to provide technical assistance to service Libyan warplanes; China entered into a reactor project with Algeria that may well have nuclear-weapon related implications; China exported missile- or nuclear-weapons related technology to Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan; Iran tested a modified version of the Soviet SCUD-C intermediate range ballistic missile and has reportedly spent, since March, 1990, at least $200 million annually on a nuclear weapons program aided by Pakistan, Argentina and China.
Last May , President Bush [the first President Bush] called for restraint in weapons sales to the Middle East. Since then, this country has transferred approximately $6 billion in arms to the region, according to the Arms Control Association. Figures compiled from Pentagon, congressional and other government sources reveal that the United States spent $19 billion in weapons to the Middle East in the seventeen months since Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was provided with $14.8 billion worth of arms (much of it now being trans-shipped to Syria) while Egypt, which coexists in an increasingly cold peace with Israel, received $2.17 billion in weapons. Other advanced U.S. weapons have been sent to Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
What is Israel to do? Recognizing that its principal (and only) powerful friend has also become the principal benefactor of its sworn enemies, Israel should understand that the vaunted peace talks can never succeed, and that perpetual self-reliance is all that stands in the way of extinction as a state. Faced with the prospect of Iranian missiles capable of counterforce attacks upon airfields of the Israeli Air Force and later counter value attacks upon Israeli civilian populations, Jerusalem will soon have to decide whether it would be better to absorb enemy first strikes and then confront a possible end to the “Third Temple Commonwealth,” or to strike first defensively (preemptively) itself.
It should not be a difficult decision. If it waits too long to decide, Iran will systematically multiply, disperse and harden the core elements of its developing nuclear infrastructures. If this happens, preemption will ultimately no longer be an operational option.
International law is not a suicide pact. The right of self-defense by forestalling an attack was established jurisprudentially in the seventeenth century. Today, in an age of uniquely destructive weaponry, international law does not expect Israel to wait calmly for its own annihilation. How could it?
What does the plausible convergence of strategic and jurisprudential assessments of preemption suggest about Israel’s prospective consideration of striking first? Above all, it suggests that Israel need not necessarily be deterred from appropriate forms of preemption out of fear that its actions would be correctly described as “criminal.” Although, predictably, a substantial number of states will condemn Israel for “aggression” under any circumstances, this charge – if Israel’s preemptive strikes meet the expectations of jus ad bellum (justice of war) and jus in bello (justice in war) – could be countered authoritatively and effectively by pertinent references to international law.