Faced with the daunting prospect of seemingly endless terrorism, and with staggering global opposition to any of its essential and altogether permissible forms of self-defense, Israel now requires a complex and capable counter-terrorism strategy merely to survive. Simultaneously, the major threats to Israel’s physical survival lie in certain mass-destruction (biological and/or nuclear) attacks by enemy states. Ultimately, therefore, the Jewish State’s actual continuance rests upon even more than successful counter-terrorism. It rests also upon the inherently fragile and unpredictable foundations of nuclear deterrence.
Israel is tiny. For this beleaguered ministate, U.S. President Barack Obama’s preferred “world free of nuclear weapons” would represent a harsh habitat of utterly radical insecurity. Here, amid a literally dreadful anarchy, Israel’s enemies could now gratefully inflict mortal harms upon the “Zionist Cancer” without plausible fear of unacceptable reprisals. If, moreover, this particular preferred world were also to embrace Mr. Obama’s road map to an independent Palestinian state, the resultant synergies and (using a productive military concept) force multipliers could further magnify the existential threats to Israel.
Significantly, this does not mean that a still-nuclear Israel would necessary be safe and secure. Nuclear deterrence, after all, depends in part upon enemy rationality. Where this requirement is not met, the nuclear retaliatory threat is immobilized.
Neither Israel nor the United States has been willing to act preemptively against Iran. Why? The answer is that they have chosen instead to rely upon hope.
It is a mistake as old as history. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, considering the uncertain fate of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, observed: “Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast, find out what it means only when they are already ruined.”
Soon, Iran will almost certainly become a full nuclear weapons state. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will then attempt, vainly, to achieve some form of stable deterrence with Tehran. Hoping that a new balance of terror can somehow be premised upon the earlier US-USSR model, Washington and Jerusalem will inevitably discover more-or-less catastrophic failure.
A core of Jerusalem’s nuclear strategy has always been to keep its “bomb” in the basement. After Iranian nuclearization, however, there would be unacceptable risks of continuing with its policy of nuclear ambiguity.
Until now, ambiguity has worked. Although it has done little to deter ordinary conventional enemy aggressions or certain acts of terror, ambiguity has succeeded in keeping Israel’s enemies from mounting existential aggressions. These particular aggressions could have been mounted without nuclear weapons. There does come a point in any war when mass counts.
Israel’s enemies have always had an obvious advantage in mass. None of Israel’s foes has “the bomb,” but together, collaboratively, and possibly even including non-state proxies, they could still have acquired the capacity to carry out intolerably massive assaults.
Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity will not work indefinitely. To be deterred, a fully nuclear Iran would need assurance that Israel’s own nuclear weapons were both invulnerable (safe from Iranian first-strikes), and penetration-capable (able to punch through Iran’s own active and passive defenses). Such assurance would be made more likely by particular Israeli steps toward nuclear disclosure.
Ironically, perhaps, Iranian perceptions of mega-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons could undermine Israel’s nuclear deterrence. In some circumstances, Israel’s deterrent credibility could even vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms. The more destructive Israel’s nuclear weapons appear to prospective aggressors, the less likely they will actually be fired.
An Iranian nuclear threat to Israel could also be indirect, stemming from any willingness in Tehran to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah or another kindred terrorist group.To prevent this threat, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran that Israel possesses a range of distinctly usable nuclear options. Here, too, continued nuclear ambiguity might not remain sufficiently persuasive to sustain Israel’s nuclear deterrent.
Jerusalem will eventually need to move from nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure. What will then need to be calculated by IDF planners and strategists is the precise extent to which Israel should communicate its relevant nuclear positions, intentions and capabilities.
Once faced with a nuclear fait accompli in Tehran, Israel would need to convince Iran’s leaders that it possesses both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. But, again, no Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy.
Were a religiously-driven Iranian leadership to expect a Shiite apocalypse, Iran could readily cast aside all rational behavior. Iran would thus become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a terrifying prospect is improbable, but it is not inconceivable.
To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to exploit every aspect of its still opaque nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s efforts will depend not only upon its selected pattern of “counterforce” and “counter value” (counter-city) operations, but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to both enemy states and their non-state surrogates. Before these enemies can be deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following a still-possible Israeli (non-nuclear) preemption, it will not be enough to know that Israel has the bomb. These enemies would also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to any such attacks and that some are pointed directly at high-value population targets.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence by heightening enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks.
For now, Israel’s bomb should remain ambiguous, if only to ward off insistent denuclearization pressures on Jerusalem from Washington. Still, no later than the moment that Iran is revealed to be finalizing its nuclear weapons capability, Israel must put an immediate end to its nuclear ambiguity. Simultaneously, of course, Israel must capably fight its protracted struggle against terrorism, with special reference to the prevention of a Palestinian state. As my readers in The Jewish Press are already well aware, the worst-case outcome for Israel would be the simultaneous appearance of “Palestine” with a nuclear Iran. Such a portentous outcome must be avoided at all costs.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003). 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; Cambridge Review of International Affairs (UK); Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; and The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Some of 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). Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.