Taken in isolation, the emerging Palestinian state – a state that is now being forged with the open support of U.S. President George W. Bush – will have no direct bearing on Israel’s nuclear posture. Yet, although obviously non-nuclear itself, Palestine could substantially diminish Israel’s capacity to wage certain forms of conventional war and could thereby enlarge the Jewish State’s incentive to rely on unconventional weapons in particular circumstances. Facing steadily growing dangers of war and terrorism from yet another enemy country – a new Arab state that could act collaboratively with certain of the 22 other already-existing Arab states – Israel could feel compelled to bring elements of its long-secret nuclear strategy out into the open.
Israel’s nuclear strategy – certainly never articulated in any precise or public fashion – is nonetheless oriented primarily toward deterrence. In this connection, the so-called “Samson Option” refers to a presumed policy based upon the implicit threat of overwhelming nuclear retaliation for very specific enemy aggressions. Naturally, this policy would enter into force plausibly only where such aggressions actually threatened Israel’s national survival.
The point of the Samson Option would not be to communicate availability of a graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent or of an Israeli nuclear warfighting potential, but rather of the unstated “promise” of a massive countercity (“countervalue” in military parlance) reprisal. Clearly, the Samson Option per se is not likely to deter any aggressions short of altogether massive WMD (nuclear and/or certain biological) first strike attacks upon the Jewish State. More than anything else, its overriding rationale would be to communicate 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 far better as an essential adjunct to deterrence and certain preemption options than as a core nuclear strategy.
How, more particularly, can the Samson Option best serve Israel’s strategic requirements? Although the primary mission of Israel’s still undisclosed nuclear weapons must always be to preserve the Jewish State – not to wreak post-Apocalyptic havoc or vengeance in a spasm of last-resort reprisals – recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption capabilities. Here is how this would work.
In reference to 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 “Samson” weapons were plainly “countercity” in mission function. In view of what we 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 considerable extent, the nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend upon prior enemy state awareness of Israel’s countercity targeting posture. Exactly such a posture was recently recommended by the private “Project Daniel Group” report to Israeli Prime Minister 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 adequately safe to undertake. Here these leaders would expect that Israeli preemptive strikes – known under authoritative international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense” – could be undertaken with reduced expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This expectation would depend, of course, 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 countercity 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 could always be a double-edged sword. Israeli leaders must always be mindful of this. Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could even encourage enemy preemptions.
Left to themselves, insufficiently deterred or 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 promptly acknowledge their obligation to strengthen the country’s nuclear security posture, and to take all necessary steps to ensure that a failure of nuclear deterrence will not necessarily spark regional nuclear warfare. One important way to meet this vital obligation is to focus more explicitly and purposefully on the “Samson Option.”
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LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israell security matters. His work is well-known in American and Israeli political, academic, military and intelligence communities. Professor Beres is Chair of the private “Project Daniel Group,” which has submitted its sweeping final report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to Prime Minister Sharon. He is also Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.