A new state of “Palestine” will very likely be carved out of the still-living body of Israel. Supported by the President of the United States, this 23rd Arab state will quickly try to extend, incrementally, even within the “Green Line” boundaries of Israel itself. Strategically, this Palestinian state – tied to many terrorist groups and flanking 70 percent of Israel’s population – will have a widely injurious impact on Israel’s survival options. It will, therefore, strongly affect future war in the Middle East.
Even in the absence of a Palestinian state, Israel’s survival will continue to require purposeful self-reliance in military matters. Such reliance, in turn, would still demand: (1) a comprehensive nuclear strategy involving deterrence, preemption and war fighting capabilities; and (2) a corollary conventional strategy.
Significantly, however, the birth of “Palestine” would affect these strategies in several important ways. Most obviously, of course, a Palestinian state would make Israel’s conventional capabilities more problematic, and would thereby heighten the chances of a regional nuclear war.
Nuclear war could arrive in Israel not only as a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise missile attack, but also as a result – intended or inadvertent – of escalation. If, for example, certain enemy states were to begin “only” conventional and/or biological attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem might respond, sooner or later, with fully nuclear reprisals. Or if these enemy states were to begin conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s conventional reprisals might be met, in the future, with enemy nuclear counterstrikes. For now, this would become possible only if a currently still-nuclearizing Iran were spared any forms of Israeli or American preemptive interference – actions identifiable as “anticipatory self- defense” under international law.
It follows that a persuasive Israeli conventional deterrent, to the extent that it could prevent enemy state conventional and/or biological attacks in the first place, would substantially reduce Israel’s risk of escalatory exposure to a nuclear war.
But why should Israel need a conventional deterrent at all? Even after “Palestine,” won’t enemy states desist from launching conventional and/or biological attacks upon Israel for plausible fear of a nuclear retaliation? Not necessarily. Aware that Israel would cross the nuclear threshold only in very extraordinary circumstances, these enemy states could be convinced – rightly or wrongly – that so long as their attacks remained entirely non-nuclear, Israel would always respond in kind.
The only credible way for Israel to deter large-scale conventional attacks after the creation of “Palestine” would be by maintaining visible and large-scale conventional capabilities. Of course, enemy states contemplating first-strike attacks using chemical and/or biological weapons are apt to take much more seriously Israel’s (newly disclosed or still undisclosed) nuclear deterrent. A strong conventional capability is needed by Israel essentially to deter or to preempt conventional attacks – attacks that could, if they were undertaken, lead quickly via escalation to various forms of unconventional war. Here, Oslo and “Road Map”-related expectations would critically impair Israel’s strategic depth and consequently, that country’s capacity to wage conventional warfare.
It is still not widely understood that “Palestine” would have serious unforseen effects on power and peace in the Middle East. As creation of yet another enemy Arab state would come out of the intentionally dismembered body of Israel, the Jewish state’s strategic depth, militarily, would inevitably diminish. Over time, Israel’s conventional capacity to ward off enemy attacks could be greatly reduced. Paradoxically, if enemy states were to perceive Israel’s own sense of expanding weakness and desperation, this could actually mean a strengthening of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. If, however, pertinent enemy states did not perceive such a “sense” among Israel’s decision-makers (a far more likely scenario), these states, animated by Israel’s conventional force deterioration, could be encouraged to attack.
The result, spawned by Israel’s post-“Palestine” incapacity to maintain strong conventional deterrence, could be: (1) a defeat of Israel in a conventional war; (2) a defeat of Israel in an unconventional chemical/biological/nuclear war; (3) a defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/unconventional war; or (4) a defeat of Arab/Islamic state enemies by Israel in an unconventional war.
For Israel, a country less than half the size of Lake Michigan, even the “successful” fourth possibility could be altogether intolerable. The consequences of a nuclear war or even a chemical/biological war could be calamitous for the victor as well as the vanquished. Indeed, in such exceptional conditions of belligerency, the traditional notions of “victory” and “defeat” would likely lose all serious meaning. Although a meaningful risk of regional nuclear war in the Middle East surely exists independently of a Palestinian state, this risk would be far greater if such a new terror state were allowed to be born.
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LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.