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October 9, 2015 / 26 Tishri, 5776
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Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity: Opportunity Or Liability? (Part I)


“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War”

Proverbs  24,6


            Worldwide, it is generally assumed that Israel’s nuclear policy of deliberate ambiguity makes good sense. Everyone already knows that Israel has “the Bomb.”  So, why “stir the pot” by retreating from “opacity?”


            Deducible from this conventional argument, removing “the bomb” from Israel’s “basement” would elicit widespread and needless global condemnation. Moreover, such condemnation would include some very sharp and very consequential disapproval from Washington.


            Still, as I have made plain in previous columns, the core strategic issues here are not really plain and straightforward.  Rather, in the uniquely arcane world of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it can never be enough that enemy states simply acknowledge the Jewish state’s nuclear status. Among other things, it is important that these states also believe that Israel has usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem would be willing to employ these weapons in certain very precise and readily identifiable situations.


            There are, therefore, some very sound reasons to doubt the conventional wisdom that Israel would necessarily benefit from a rigidly determined continuance of nuclear ambiguity.


             Israel needs its nuclear weapons. This basic fact is incontestable. Without these weapons, as I have written often, Israel could not survive. 


            For Israel, the principal risks are more than merely generic or general. This is because its existing regional adversaries will sometime be joined by: (1) a new enemy Arab state of  Palestine;” and  (2) a newly nuclear enemy Iran. At a minimum, if deprived of its own nuclear weapons, Israel would then be unable to deter major enemy aggressions. Without these special weapons, Israel could not respond convincingly to existential hazards with plausible threats of retaliation and/or counter-retaliation.


             At the same time, just having nuclear weapons, even when they are plainly recognized by enemy states, will not ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, although starkly counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve and sustain Israel’s otherwise-imperiled nuclear deterrent.  More exactly, the probability of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be reduced by making available certain additional information concerning Israel’s nuclear weapons, and its relevant strategic postures. This crucial information would center on distinctly major issues of both nuclear capability, and decisional willingness.


             Skeptics will disagree. It is, after all, reasonable to assert that nuclear opacity has  “worked” thus far.  While Israel’s nuclear ambiguity has done little to deter “ordinary” enemy aggressions or multiple acts of terror, it has succeeded in keeping the country’s enemies from mounting authentically existential aggressions.


            These larger aggressions could have been mounted without nuclear or biological weapons. As the nineteenth-century Prussian strategic theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, observed in his classic essay, On War, there inevitably does come a military tipping point when “mass counts.”


            Israel is half the size of Lake Michigan. Its enemies have always had an undeniable advantage in “mass.”  Excluding non-Arab Pakistan, none of Israel’s Jihadist foes has “The Bomb.”  But together, in a determined collaboration, they could still have acquired the capacity to carry out intolerably lethal assaults. Acting collectively, these states and their insurgent proxies, even without nuclear weapons, could already have inflicted unacceptable harms upon the Jewish state.


            An integral part of Israel’s multi-layered security system lies in active or ballistic missile defenses – essentially, the Arrow or “Hetz.” Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully tested Arrow could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. No system of ballistic missile defense can ever be entirely “leak proof,” and even a single incoming nuclear missile that managed to penetrate Arrow defenses could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Significantly, however, the inherent “leakage” limitations of Arrow would be correspondingly less consequential if Israel’s continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were suitably diminished.


To Be Continued


Louis René Beres  (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) was Chair of Project Daniel.  Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, he is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including publications in International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Nativ (Israel); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: The Professional Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; Strategic Review; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres’ monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war have been published by The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). His frequent opinion columns have appeared in The New York Times; Christian Science Monitor; Chicago Tribune; Washington Post; Washington Times; Boston Globe; USA Today; The Jerusalem Post;  Ha’aretz (Israel); Neue Zuricher Zeitung (Switzerland); and U.S. News & World Report.


Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.

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