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Project Daniel: Israel’s Policy Of Nuclear Ambiguity (Part Five)


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My prior column dealt with some of the precise ways in which a nuclear war might actually begin between Israel and its enemies. From the standpoint of preventing such a war, it is essential that Israel now protect itself with suitable policies of preemption, defense and deterrence. This last set of policies, moreover, will depend substantially upon whether Israel continues to keep its bomb in the “basement,” or whether it decides to change from a formal nuclear posture of “deliberate ambiguity” to one of selected and partial disclosure.

In one major respect, the issue is already somewhat moot. Shortly after coming to power as Prime Minister, Shimon Peres took the unprecedented step of openly acknowledging Israel’s nuclear capability. Responding to press questions about the Oslo “peace process” and the probable extent of Israeli concessions, Peres remarked that he would be “delighted” to “give up the Atom” if the entire region would only embrace a comprehensive security plan. Although this remark was certainly not an intended expression of changed nuclear policy, it did raise the question of a more tangible Israeli shift away from nuclear ambiguity.

The nuclear disclosure issue is far more than a simple “yes” or “no.” Obviously, the basic question was already answered by Peres’s “offer.” What  needs to be determined soon is the timing of purposeful disclosure and the extent of subtlety and detail with which Israel should communicate its nuclear capabilities and intentions to selected enemy states. This issue is central to the deliberations of Project Daniel, which concluded that Israel’s bomb should remain in the basement as long as possible, but also that it should be revealed in particular contours if enemy circumstances should change in an ominous fashion. In the exact words of our Executive Summary:

Israel should continue with its present policy of ambiguity regarding its own nuclear status. This should help to prevent any legitimization of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in the Middle East. It is possible, however, that in the future, Israel would be well-advised to proceed beyond nuclear ambiguity to certain limited forms of disclosure. This would be the case only if enemy (state and/or non-state) nuclearization had not been prevented.

In essence, therefore, because the Report stipulates the need for an expanded Israeli doctrine of preemption, this Project Daniel statement on nuclear ambiguity means that Israel should promptly remove the bomb from its basement if – for whatever reason – Israel should have failed to exploit the recommended doctrine of preemption.

The rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure does not lie in expressing the obvious; that is, that Israel has the bomb. Instead, it lies in the informed understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel’s security in a number of different ways, and that all of these ways could benefit the Jewish State to the extent that certain aspects of these weapons and associated strategies are disclosed. The pertinent form and extent of disclosure would be especially vital to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

For the foreseeable future, some of Israel’s state enemies, including Egypt (with which Israel is officially “at peace”) and non-Arab Iran continue to enlarge and refine both their conventional and unconventional military capabilities. Even if enemy state intentions do not yet fully parallel their capabilities, this could change very quickly. For example, Iranian capabilities could soon determine intentions, occasioning biological and/or nuclear first-strikes against Israel because of presumed tactical advantages.

To protect itself against enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel must exploit every component function of its nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s efforts will depend in large measure not only upon its chosen configuration of “counterforce” (hard-target) and “countervalue” (city-busting) operations, but also upon the extent to which this configuration is made known in advance to enemy states. Before such an enemy is deterred from launching first-strikes against Israel, or before it is deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli preemption, it may not be enough that it simply “knows” that Israel has the Bomb. It may also need to recognize that these Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that they are aimed at very high-value targets.

In this connection, the Final Report of Project Daniel recommends that “a recognizable retaliatory force should be fashioned with the capacity to destroy some 15 high-value targets scattered widely over pertinent enemy states in the Middle East.” This “countervalue” strategy means that Israel’s second-strike response to enemy aggressions involving biological and/or nuclear weapons would be unambiguously directed at enemy populations, not at enemy weapons or infrastructures. At the same time, we assert: “The overriding priority of Israel’s nuclear deterrent force must always be that it preserves the country’s security without ever having to be fired against any target. The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.”

It may appear, at first glance, that Israeli targeting of enemy military installations and troop concentrations (“counterforce targeting”) would be both more compelling as a deterrent and also more humane. But it is entirely likely that a nuclear-armed enemy of Israel could conceivably regard any Israeli retaliatory destruction of its armed forces as “acceptable” in certain circumstances. Such an enemy might conclude that the expected benefits of annihilating “the Zionist entity” outweigh any expected retaliatory harms to its military. Here, of course, Israel’s nuclear deterrent would fail, possibly with existential consequences.

It is highly unlikely, however, that any enemy state would ever calculate that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel would outweigh the expected costs of its own annihilation. Excluding an irrational enemy state – a prospect that falls by definition outside the logic of nuclear deterrence – state enemies of Israel would assuredly refrain from nuclear and/or biological attacks upon Israel that would presumptively elicit massive countervalue reprisals. This reasoning would hold only to the extent that these enemy states fully believed that Israel would make good on its threats. Israel’s nuclear deterrent, once it were made open and appropriately explicit, would need to make clear to all prospective nuclear enemies the following: “Israel’s nuclear weapons, dispersed, multiplied and hardened, are targeted upon your major cities. These weapons will never be used against these targets except in retaliation for certain WMD aggressions. Unless our population centers are struck first by nuclear attack or certain levels of biological attack or by combined nuclear/biological attack, we will not harm your cities.”

Some readers will be disturbed by this reasoning, discovering in it perhaps some ominous hint of “Dr. Strangelove.” Yet, the countervalue targeting strategy recommended by Project Daniel represents Israel’s best hope for avoiding a nuclear or biological war. It 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. Such a war, even if all weapons remained targeted on the other side’s military forces and structures (a very optimistic assumption) would entail high levels of “collateral damage.”

“The very best weapons”, Clausewitz wrote, “are those that achieve their objectives without ever actually being used.” This is especially the case with nuclear weapons. Israel’s nuclear weapons can succeed only through nonuse. Recognizing this, Project Daniel makes very clear in its Final Report to Prime Minister Sharon that nuclear warfighting must always be avoided by Israel.

Summing up, the Project Daniel Group recommends that Israel do whatever it must to prevent enemy nuclearization, up to and including pertinent acts of preemption. Should these measures fail, measures that would be permissible under international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” the Jewish state should immediately end its posture of nuclear ambiguity with
fully open declarations of countervalue targeting. This, we feel, would be the best way for Israel to prevent catastrophic unconventional war in the always unstable Middle East.

My next column in this special Project Daniel series will deal with the growing anarchy in world affairs and its particular implications for Israel.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He is Chair of Project Daniel and Strategic and Military Affairs Analyst for The Jewish Press. As early as twenty years ago (1984), his views on the “bomb in the basement” were the subject of three lectures at Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. This series was hosted by Major-General (IDF/Res.) Aharon Yariv, a former Chief of the IDF Intelligence Branch.

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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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