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Project Daniel: The Existential Threat To Israel (Part Seven)


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My previous column in the Project Daniel series dealt with Israel’s survival problem in a world of increasing chaos and anarchy. Recalling apt images of the Irish poet Yeats, of a world wherein “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” and where “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” we must now quickly acknowledge that certain current threats to Israel are profoundly existential. Such an acknowledgment, however disturbing, is the necessary starting point for all further investigations and recommendations on Israeli security. With this in mind, Project Daniel, very early on in our Final Report, undertook to identify these unprecedented threats. Let me now explain what we had to say to the Prime Minister at the outset of Israel’s strategic future.

In an age of total war, Israel must always remain fully aware of those harms that would threaten its very continuance as a state. Although the Jewish state has always recognized an overriding obligation to seek peace through negotiation and diplomacy wherever possible, there are times – to be sure – when its commitment to peaceful settlement will not be reciprocated. Moreover, there are times when the idea of an existential threat may reasonably apply to a particular level of harms that falls well below the threshold of complete national annihilation. In our Project Daniel Final Report, * therefore, we advised the Prime Minister accordingly that certain forms of both conventional and unconventional attack against large Israeli civilian concentrations could constitute a true existential threat, even where they did not point toward total country destruction.

For example, certain biological or nuclear attacks upon Tel-Aviv that would kill many thousands of Israeli citizens could have dire consequences for the continued functioning of the whole country. A recent report by the Washington- based Heritage Foundation examined the effects of an enemy WMD attack on Tel-Aviv. In one scenario, a single enemy missile carrying 500 kilograms of botulinum would kill approximately 50,000 Israeli men, women and children. In another scenario, an enemy missile fitted with 450 kilograms of VX nerve gas would kill about 43,000 people. If left to develop nuclear warheads, these missiles could kill hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Examining these possibilities, our Project Daniel group noted three distinct but interrelated existential threats to Israel:

1. Biological/Nuclear (BN) threats from states;

2. BN threats from terror organizations; and

3. BN threats from combined efforts of states and terror organizations. To the extent that certain Arab states and Iran are now allowed to develop WMD capabilities (the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency remains predictably more focused upon Israeli nuclear efforts than upon those of Islamic states), Israel may have to deal someday with an anonymous attack scenario. Here, the aggressor enemy state would not identify itself, and Israeli post-attack identification would be exceedingly difficult. What is Israel to do in such a situation?

The Group recommended to the Prime Minister that “Israel must identify explicitly and early on that all enemy Arab states and Iran are subject to massive Israeli reprisal in the event of a BN attack upon Israel.” We recommended further that “massive” reprisals be targeted at between 10 and 20 large enemy cities (“countervalue” targeting) and that the nuclear yields of such Israeli reprisals be in the megaton-range. It goes without saying that such deterrent threats by Israel would be very compelling to all rational enemies, but – at the same time – would likely have little or no effect upon irrational ones. In the case of irrational adversaries, Israel’s only hope for safety will likely lie in appropriate acts of preemption – defensive acts to be discussed more fully in the next column of my ongoing Project Daniel series.

A policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) which was obtained between the United States and the Soviet Union, would never work between Israel and its Arab/Iranian enemies. Rather, the Project Daniel Group recommended that Israel MUST prevent its enemies from acquiring BN status, and that any notion of BN “parity” between Israel and its enemies would be intolerable. The ratios of physical size 800:1; population 55:1 and political clout in the United nations – at least 22:1 – means that Israel’s very survival is contingent upon avoiding parity at all costs. With this in mind, the Group advised the Prime Minister that “Israel immediately adopt – as highest priority – a policy of preemption with respect to enemy existential threats.” Such a policy would be based upon the more limited definition of “existential” described above, and would also enhance Israel’s overall deterrence posture.

Recognizing the close partnership and overlapping interests between Israel and the United States, the Project Daniel Group strongly supports the ongoing American War Against Terror (WAT). In this connection, we have urged full cooperation and mutuality between Jerusalem and Washington regarding communication of intentions. If for any reason the United States should decide against exercising preemption options against certain developing weapons of mass destruction (a distinct possibility these days, as we are very much preoccupied with Iraq), Israel must reserve for itself the unhindered prerogative to undertake its own preemption options. Understood in the more formal language of international law, these operations would be an expression of “anticipatory self- defense.”

Our Group began its initial deliberations with the following urgent concern: Israel faces the hazard of a suicide-bomber in macrocosm. In this scenario, an enemy Arab state or Iran would act against Israel without ordinary regard for any retaliatory consequences. In the fashion of the individual suicide bomber who acts without fear of personal consequences – indeed, who actually welcomes the most extreme personal consequence, which is death – an enemy Arab state and/or Iran would launch WMD attacks against Israel with full knowledge and expectation of overwhelming Israeli reprisals. The conclusion to be drawn from this scenario is that Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis “suicide states” would have been immobilized by enemy irrationality, and that Israel’s only recourse in such circumstances would have been appropriate forms of preemption.

My next column in this special series will elaborate further on Project Daniel’s recommendations concerning preemption, deterrence and nuclear warfighting. As always, I welcome any e-mail inquiries from my readers about my columns.

* Readers can access the full report of “Project Daniel” online, by going to the website of the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel) – www.acpr.org.il – or by requesting the printed monograph from the Ariel Center. It is ACPR Policy Paper No. 155 (May 2004) and can be ordered by contacting: info@acpr.org.il.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law. He is Chair of Project Daniel as well as Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for THE JEWISH PRESS. He can be e-mailed at: Beres@polsci.purdue.edu

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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