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Israeli Nuclear Deterrence


Beres-Louis-Rene

Israel’s nuclear capacity remains undeclared. For now, this is in Israel’s overall best interest. In a world where the United States currently expresses serious concerns about nuclearization in Iran and North Korea, it would be inappropriate for Israel to embarrass its major ally by any form of nuclear disclosure.

Yet, the time may soon be at hand when continued nuclear ambiguity could undermine Israel’s deterrence posture. If Iran were to succeed in developing “The Bomb,” Israel would have absolutely no choice about making explicit certain of its own nuclear forces and doctrines. Ideally, Israel would take pertinent steps to ensure that no Arab enemy state or Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons. Such essential expressions of preemption – known under international law as “anticipatory self-defense” – would be entirely consistent with current American policy.

Following Operation Iraqi Freedom, this policy expands the right of the United States to launch defensive first strikes in an age of mass destruction weaponry.

Because it is vastly more vulnerable than the United States, Israel has very substantial rights of anticipatory self-defense. Nevertheless, for one reason or another, Israel could choose not to exercise these rights. The result could well be an enemy state or combination of states armed with nuclear weapons. Here, faced with existential harms, the Jewish state would need to take immediate steps to convince its newly-nuclear adversaries that it could and would respond to any and all nuclear aggressions with overwhelmingly destructive nuclear retaliations. In the most extreme circumstances, the declared object of these retaliations could even be very high-value targets – that is, enemy capital cities and major population centers.

At first glance, it would appear that Israeli targeting of enemy military infrastructures and troop concentrations (“counterforce targeting”) would be both more compelling and more humane. But it is entirely likely that a nuclear-armed enemy of Israel could regard any Israeli retaliatory destruction of its armed forces as “acceptable.”

For example, such an enemy might conclude that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel outweigh any expected retaliatory harm to its military. In such circumstances, Israel’s nuclear deterrence would fail.

It is highly unlikely, on the other hand, that an enemy state would ever calculate that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel outweigh the expected costs of its own annihilation. Excluding an irrational enemy state – a prospect that falls, by definition, outside the logic of all nuclear deterrence – state enemies of Israel would assuredly refrain from nuclear attacks upon Israel that would presumably elicit massive “countervalue” reprisals. This would hold, of course, only to the extent that these enemy states fully believed that Israel would actually make good on its threats.

Israel’s nuclear deterrent, once it were made unambiguous and appropriately explicit, would need to make clear to all prospective nuclear enemies the following: “Our nuclear weapons, dispersed, multiplied, and hardened, are targeted upon your major cities. Such weapons will never be used against these targets except in retaliation. Unless our population centers are struck first by nuclear attack (and possibly also by certain levels of biological attack or combined nuclear/biological attack), we will not harm your cities.”

Some readers will no doubt be disturbed by this reasoning, discovering in it even some ominous hint of  “Dr. Strangelove.” Yet, the recommended countervalue targeting strategy represents Israel’s best chance of avoiding a nuclear war, and is, therefore, the most humane strategy available. The Israeli alternative, an expressed “counterforce” targeting doctrine, would produce a markedly higher probability of nuclear or nuclear/biological war. And such a war, even if all country weapons remained targeted exclusively on the other side’s military forces and structures (a very optimistic assumption) would entail extraordinary levels of “collateral damage.”

The very best weapons, Clausewitz wrote, are those that achieve their objectives without ever being used. This is especially the case with nuclear weapons. Indeed, nuclear weapons can succeed ONLY through nonuse. Recognizing this, Israel must now do all in its power to prevent enemy nuclearization, including – if necessary – suitable forms of preemption. If these measures should fail, however, it should promptly end its own nuclear ambiguity with open declarations of countervalue targeting. This would be the very best way for Israel to prevent catastrophic unconventional war in the Middle East.

Copyright (c) The Jewish Press, 2005. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. He is Chair of “Project Daniel,” which has presented its final report (ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE) to Prime Minister Sharon, and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: 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.


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