After absorbing any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would certainly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would likely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. There would be absolutely no assurances, in response to this sort of aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.
This point should not be lost on the authoritative decision makers in Tehran.
What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In this case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation. Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not necessarily be ruled out. This is plausible if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Recognizing Israel’s exceptionally small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.
Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel, even if it had delayed too long, could still decide to preempt enemy aggression with conventional forces. The targeted state’s response would then determine Israel’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear Israel would undertake nuclear counter-retaliation.
If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons Israel might also plan to take a quantum escalatory initiative. This sort of initiative is known in military parlance as “escalation dominance.” It could be necessary (even indispensable) to Israel’s preservation of intra-war deterrence. Here we need to bear in mind that deterrence does not necessarily cease functioning immediately upon the commencement of hostilities. It can continue to play a different but still more or less productive role during the ensuing conflict.
If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes it is improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. But if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations as well as to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be excluded. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.
It is almost inconceivable that Israel would ever decide to preempt any enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While particular circumstances could arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational, and also be entirely lawful according to the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (which refused to prohibit certain residual resorts to nuclear weapons that are deemed essential to national survival), it is unreasonable that Israel would ever permit itself to reach such all-or-nothing circumstances. Also worth mentioning is that Israel remains pledged to the “purity of arms” (Tohar HaNeshek) and to incomparably strict compliance with humanitarian international law, especially the minimization of collateral (non-combatant) harms.
An Israeli nuclear preemption is highly improbable, and could conceivably be expected only if: (1) Israel’s enemy or enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish State; (2) this enemy state had been forthright that its genocidal intentions paralleled its capabilities; (3) this state was reliably believed ready to begin a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own national survival. To reject altogether this particular argument on Israeli nuclear preemption as impossible or implausible, however, would require an antecedent assumption that national self-preservation is not Israel’s highest priority. This assumption would be incorrect.
The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and one or more of the several states that still wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue. This would be the case so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.
From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should now take prompt and immediate steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d). As was clarified by Project Daniel’s final report, Israel’s Strategic Future, it is always in Israel’s interest to avoid nuclear war fighting wherever possible.
For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. Significantly, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential state aggressors were allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions. This point is frequently overlooked by all those who would oppose any pertinent forms of anticipatory self-defense by Israel.
Should any enemy nuclear deployments be allowed, Israel could then forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Its only remaining alternatives to nuclear preemption would then be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to do nothing, thereby relying for security on the increasingly doubtful logic of nuclear deterrence, and the always inherently limited protections of ballistic missile defense. This means that the risks of an Israeli nuclear preemption, of nuclear exchanges with an enemy state and of enemy nuclear first strikes could all still be reduced by certain Israeli non-nuclear preemptions.
While still completely unrecognized in Washington, there is no greater power in world politics than the power over death. In this connection, the idea of an apocalypse figures scripturally in both Judaism and Christianity, but it very likely appeared for the very first time among the Zoroastrians in ancient Persia. This is basically the same region as modern day Iran.
For President Ahmadinejad, still deeply concerned with power over death, there would be a recognizably terrible beauty in transforming the “World of War” into the “World of Islam.” Indeed, this observation is incontestable. For this Iranian president, and more importantly, for his clerical masters, any “end of the world” struggle spawned by such transformation could enticingly open the way, for believers, to a life everlasting. It should come as no surprise, then, that these Iranian decision-makers might still uncover a distinctly positive outcome in their end-of-the-world imaginings.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters (The Journal of the US Army War College); The Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Some of his earlier writings on both strategic and jurisprudential matters appeared in such journals as World Politics (Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism and Security International; Policy Sciences and Armed Forces and Society. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its then-confidential final report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.