Blessed by newly anticipated changes in American foreign policy, certain of Israel’s adversaries could soon attempt to bring the Jewish State into the eternal darkness, into fire, into ice. It is therefore essential for Israel’s leadership to take immediate steps to ensure that a Baker-Hamilton [Iraq Study Group heads] engendered failure of Israeli deterrence will not occasion a regional nuclear war. Israel must continue to plan around the sound understanding that nuclear deterrence and conventional deterrence remain critically interrelated.
In coming months, following various mistaken recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will likely move quietly toward sacrificing Israeli security for the presumed sake of better U.S. ties with Iran and Syria. Derived from a baseless expectation that such treachery will help us in Iraq, this sacrifice would accomplish nothing for the United States. Instead, it would only further weaken our own overall security position in the Middle East.
A nuclear war could come to Israel as a “bolt-from-the-blue” missile attack or as a result, intended or otherwise, of escalation. If certain Arab/Islamic enemy states were to begin conventional attacks on Israel, Jerusalem could respond, sooner or later, with nuclear reprisals. Or if these enemy states were to begin large-scale conventional attacks on Israel, Jerusalem’s conventional reprisals could be countered (perhaps even in the not-too-distant future) with enemy nuclear counterstrikes. A persuasive Israeli conventional deterrent, to the extent that it would prevent enemy conventional attacks in the first place, could substantially reduce Israel’s risk of escalation to nuclear war. But left newly marginalized by certain Baker-Hamilton proposals, Israel would suffer a distinct weakening of its non-nuclear deterrent.
Why should Israel require a conventional deterrent at all? Wouldn’t enemy states always resist launching conventional attacks upon Israel simply out of a well-reasoned fear of Israeli nuclear retaliation?
Consider this: Acutely aware that Israel would cross the nuclear threshold only in very extraordinary (existential) circumstances, these enemy states could be convinced, rightly or wrongly, that as long as their attacks remained conventional, Israel’s response would also be non-nuclear. This would imply that the only way for Israel to deter large-scale conventional war could be by maintaining visibly large-scale combat-ready conventional capabilities. At the moment, however, after Israel’s recent operational difficulties against Hizbullah and amidst the growing anarchy within Lebanon, such maintenance appears difficult.
Arab/Islamic enemy states that are considering first-strike attacks against Israel using chemical and/or biological weapons are apt to take more seriously Israel’s nuclear deterrent. A strong conventional capability is needed by Israel to deter or to preempt conventional attacks – strikes that could, if undertaken, lead quickly via escalation to various forms of unconventional war.
This brings to mind Israel’s incremental “peace process” surrenders, both past and future. Should Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert soon accede to additional losses of essential strategic depth, losses prodded by various Baker-Hamilton proposals as well as by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel’s conventional deterrent would be critically undermined.
If Arab/Islamic enemies did not perceive an Israeli sense of expanding conventional force weakness, certain of these states − spurred on by an expectation of Israel’s unwillingness to escalate to non-conventional weapons − could be encouraged to attack. Thus the result could be: (1) Defeat of Israel in a conventional war; (2) Defeat of Israel in an unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) war; (3) Defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/unconventional war; or (4) Defeat by Israel of Arab/Islamic enemy states in an unconventional war. For tiny Israel, even the “successful” fourth possibility could be catastrophic.
There is also the related question of Israel’s “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” Perceptions are plainly important in matters of nuclear deterrence. By continuing to keep all elements of its nuclear assets and doctrine entirely secret, Israel could unwittingly contribute to an impression among its regional enemies that Israeli nuclear weapons would never be used. These enemies, unconvinced of Israel’s willingness ever to actually make good on its still-only implicit nuclear threats, could then decide (quite rationally) to strike first. If they were correct in such a calculation, Israel could subsequently be overrun and destroyed. If they were incorrect, all states in the region, including Israel, could suffer multiple nuclear weapons detonations.
Nuclear war would not respect political boundaries. Because of the manner in which nuclear explosions behave in the atmosphere, the altitude reached by the mushroom-shaped cloud would depend upon the force of the explosion. For yields in the low-kiloton range, the cloud would remain in the lower atmosphere and its effects would be almost entirely “local.” For yields exceeding 30 kilotons, however, part of the cloud of radioactive debris would “punch” into the stratosphere, affecting the launching state and certain noncombatant states as well.
To prevent nuclear war, Israel needs an appropriate nuclear deterrent. But it cannot rely entirely upon this one essential base of national security any more than it can rely only upon conventional deterrence. Rather, it must now depend upon complementary nuclear and conventional forces, and upon the continuing and associated availability of certain preemption options. Taken together, these multiple bases of security could endow the State of Israel with necessary elements of survival. Without all of these interrelated security foundations, Israel’s future – a future intimately interwoven with our own − could include regional nuclear war.
Copyright The Jewish Press, December 22, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy and nuclear war in the Middle East. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he authored some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism more than a quarter-century ago. He is also the chair of “Project Daniel.”