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Israel’s survival problem is basically as follows: A small state, indeed a microstate that is less than half the size of Lake Michigan, is surrounded by several openly-genocidal enemy states – some of which still seek biological and/or nuclear weapons of mass destruction. It is also beset by relentless terrorist groups and insurgent forces sustained by these states, many of which are comprised of “Holy Warriors” seeking “martyrdom” via mega-terror, and by the prospect that even an entire enemy country could soon act as a suicide bomber in macrosom, that is – without regard for rational behavior.

Faced with conditions wherein ordinary threats of international deterrence could be immobilized, Israel must prepare increasingly for various forms of preemption. But defensive first-strikes by Israel would be fraught with operational difficulties and political risks. Of course, if realistic hopes could somehow be placed on the “Road Map” to a Middle East Peace Process, the bleakness of Israel’s survival options could be greatly improved. But this is clearly a vain hope, as the world’s general idea of a Middle East “peace” would require Israel’s immediate territorial dismemberment and codified indefensibility.

Israel remains the openly-declared national and religious object of Arab/Islamic genocide. No other country on this persistently bleeding planet is in a remotely similar predicament. What is Israel to do? How might Israel’s possible actions or inactions affect the likelihood of a regional nuclear war in the Middle East? Looking at the current situation systematically, what can we now expect to happen in this very bad neighborhood?


My prior columns on Project Daniel dealt with the origins of this effort, the expected consequences of a regional nuclear war and the relevant insights of ancient Chinese military thinker Sun-Tzu. Now we shall consider some precise ways in which a nuclear war might actually begin between Israel and certain of its enemies. Such scenarios, though enormously important, have essentially never before been identified in the unclassified strategic literature.

Israel’s nuclear weapons, unacknowledged and unthreatening, exist only to prevent certain forms of aggression. This deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for certain massive enemy first-strikes, especially for Arab and/or Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or biological weapons. For the time being, at least, Israel’s enemies are not nuclear, but this could change in the forseeable future. Even if it should change, Israel’s nuclear weapons could continue to reduce the risks of unconventional war as long as the pertinent enemy states were (1) to remain rational; and (2) to remain convinced that Israel would retaliate massively if attacked with nuclear and/or biological weapons of mass destruction.

But there are many complex problems to identify if a bellicose enemy state were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, problems that belie the seemingly agreeable notion of stable nuclear deterrence. Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” such a state could opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of that country’s nuclear posture.

Here, Israel would certainly respond, to the extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal might surely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city or against a similarly high-value urban target. There would be no assurances, in response to this sort of aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets or even to the individual enemy state from which the aggression was launched. Of this (as Chair of Project Daniel) I am quite certain.

What if enemy first-strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or biological weapons? Here Israel might still launch a reasonably 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 still not be ruled out altogether. This is especially the case 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.

In this connection, recognizing Israel’s uniquely small size and tightly-concentrated infrastructures, Project Daniel determined early on that the threshold of existential harms must be far lower than wholesale physical devastation.

Faced with imminent and existential attacks, Israel – properly taking its cue from The National Security Strategy Of The United States Of America – could decide to preempt enemy aggression with conventional forces. Announced on September 20, 2002, this Bush-era American strategy affirms the growing reasonableness of anticipatory self-defense under international law. If Israel were to draw upon such authoritative expressions of current U.S. policy, the targeted state’s response would determine Israel’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake nuclear counter-retaliation. If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also determine to take a quantum escalatory initiative. This sort of initiative is known in military parlance as “escalation dominance,” and could be essential, for Israel, to favorable intrawar deterrence.

If the enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is highly improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. On the other hand, 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 existential strike, for all intents and purposes – an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be ruled out. 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 taregts; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.

It is exceedingly unlikely, but not entirely inconceivable, that Israel would ever decide to preempt enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While circumstances could surely arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational and also completely acceptable under international law, it is improbable that Israel would ever permit itself to reach such dire circumstances.

An Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only if: (1) Israel’s state enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the tiny Jewish state; (2) these enemy states had made explicit that their intentions paralleled their capabilities; (3) these states were authoritatively believed ready to begin a countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the minimum needed levels of damage limitation – that is, levels consistent with its own national survival.

Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and the many countries that wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear warfighting 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 must now take proper steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

Both Israeli 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. In any event, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would obviously be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors were allowed to deploy ever larger numbers of unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate Israeli and/or American preemptions.

Should such deployment be allowed to take place, Israel might effectively forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Here, its only alternatives to nuclear preemption could be a no-longer viable conventional preemption or simply waiting to be attacked itself. It follows that the risks of an Israeli nuclear preemption, of nuclear exchanges with an enemy state, AND of enemy nuclear first-strikes could all be reduced by timely Israeli and/or American non-nuclear preemptions. These preemptions would be directed at critical military targets and/or at pertinent regimes. As explained by Project Daniel, the latter option could include dedicated elimination of enemy leadership elites and/or certain enemy scientists.

Nuclear war is like any other incurable disease. The only remedies lie in prevention. Looking at the Islamic Middle East, where several Arab states and Iran are still sworn to “root out the Zionist cancer,” the only promising remedy is to ensure that Israel remain the only regional nuclear power. To this end, Israel must now be encouraged, with or without American support, to do whatever is needed to preempt enemy nuclearization and to deter enemy aggression.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, 2004. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and 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 columnist for The Jewish Press.


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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue and the author of twelve books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its special report on Israel’s Strategic Future to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003.