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Still Facing Existential Threats: Nuclear War And Genocide In The Middle East (Part Two)


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In the following second part of this column, Professor Beres continues his examination of Israel’s nuclear posture vis-à-vis Iran.

Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel could 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 assuredly 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 to Israel’s preservation of intra-war deterrence.

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 authoritative 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, it is improbable that Israel would permit itself to reach such all-or-nothing circumstances. It should also be noted that Israel has always been pledged to the “purity of arms,” and to strict compliance with humanitarian international law.

An Israeli nuclear preemption could 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 explicit 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.

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 proper 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.

But, 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. The likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors were allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions.

Should such an ill-considered deployment be allowed, Israel could forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Its only 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 problematic logic of nuclear deterrence. Whether one likes it or not, 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 be reduced by effective Israeli non-nuclear preemptions. In this regard, it is already overtime for decision in both Jerusalem and Washington.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, March 28, 2008. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor Beres was Chair of “Project Daniel,” which submitted its special report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon on January 16, 2003. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

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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