For many years, any talk of preemption against a nuclearizing Iran was certain to elicit primarily harsh and uniform condemnation. In some circles, such talk amounted to nothing less than a shamelessly proposed “aggression.” Other critics, although somewhat more charitable in their particular denunciations, still expressed guarded sentiments that any Israeli or American defensive first-strikes against Iran would be “premature.”
Now, finally, several authoritative figures are speaking plainly about the stark choices still open to Israel: preemption or apocalypse. Early in July, Meir Amit, a former director of Mossad, spoke unambiguously of Israel’s imperative to use military force against Iran. Nothing else, said Amit, could any longer stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In the best of all possible worlds, the United States would already have stepped up to the plate in the matter of Iran, but – for a variety of both political and geostrategic reasons – this did not happen.
The more things change; the more they remain the same. Once again, Israel stands alone in the world. Further, all of this talk about Iran has been either strategic and/or jurisprudential. Little or none of it, however, has focused on what – in distinctly human terms – would be the probable outcome of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Moreover, we already know Iran’s public position – in essence, drawn from Tehran itself – which Israel lacks even the minimal right to endure.
The true harms that a fully nuclear Iran could plausibly bring to Israel are not an abstraction. At the most meaningful level, they can never be found in tables, charts or computer projections. They are, rather, the flesh and blood sorrows of individuals; palpable, inexpressible, yet readily decipherable. No reasonable person who considers such fevered sorrows could remain content with an allegedly “stable balance of terror” between Tehran and Jerusalem. Indeed, any positive reference to such a presumed balance would be prima facie false. At best, it would represent the sort of empty witticism often favored by politicians and political scientists.
The matter of Iranian nuclear weapons is not a matter of international “equity.” Israel is not Iran. Israel does not declare itself at war with Iran, or even with any Arab state. From the beginning, Israel has sought only peace.
Israel holds nuclear weapons quietly, unthreateningly, without bravado – and then only to prevent its own catastrophic destruction by altogether likely enemy state aggressions. It is entirely unimaginable that Israel would ever resort to such weapons as an initial move of war. A nuclear Iran, however, would at some point consider atomic first-strike attacks upon Israel with expressly genocidal intent. After all, President Ahmadinejad talks about genocide openly – again and again. It is even conceivable (although unlikely) that a nuclear Iran would sometime willingly elicit a nuclear retaliatory strike from Israel. Here it would aim to become a collective “martyr;” a suicide bomber writ large; the suicide bomber in macrocosm.
What, in human terms, does Israel have to fear? Twenty-five years ago, I published the first of seven books that described, inter alia, the expected consequences of a nuclear war. These effects were drawn largely from a major report by the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. They included large temperature changes; contamination of food and water; disease epidemics in crops, domesticated animals, and humans due to radiation; shortening of growing seasons; irreversible injuries to aquatic species; widespread and long-term cancers due to inhalation of plutonium particles; radiation-induced abnormalities in persons in utero at the time of detonations; a vast growth in the number of skin cancers and increasing genetic disease.
Overwhelming health problems, it was already understood, would afflict the survivors of any nuclear attack. These problems would extend beyond the consequences of prompt burn injuries. Retinal burns would occur in the eyes of persons far from the explosions. Examined in light of our present concerns, this means that Israelis would be crushed by collapsing buildings and torn to shreds by flying glass. Others would fall victim to raging firestorms. Fallout injuries would include whole-body radiation injury, produced by penetrating, hard gamma radiations; superficial radiation burns produced by soft radiations; and injuries produced by deposits of radioactive substances within the body.
After an Iranian nuclear attack upon Israel, even a “small” one, those few medical facilities that might still exist in country would be taxed far beyond capacity. Water supplies would become unusable. Housing and shelter could be unavailable for hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of survivors. Transportation would break down to rudimentary levels. Food shortages would be critical and long-term.
Israel’s complex network of exchange systems would be shattered. Virtually everyone would be deprived of the most basic means of livelihood. Emergency police and fire services would be decimated. All systems dependent upon electrical power could stop functioning. Severe trauma would occasion widespread disorientation and psychiatric disorders for which there would be absolutely no therapeutic services.
Normal human society would cease. The pestilence of unrestrained murder and banditry would augment plague and epidemics. Many of the survivors would expect an increase in serious degenerative diseases. They would also expect premature death, impaired vision, and sterility. An increased incidence of leukemia and cancers of the lung, stomach, breast, ovary and uterine cervix would be unavoidable.
Many balanced relationships in nature would be upset by the extensive fallout. Israelis who survive the nuclear attack would have to deal with enlarged insect populations. Like the locusts of biblical times, mushrooming insect hordes would spread from the radiation-damaged areas in which they arose.
Insects are generally more resistant to radiation than humans. This fact, coupled with the prevalence of unburied corpses, uncontrolled waste and untreated sewage, would generate tens of trillions of flies and mosquitoes. Breeding in the dead bodies, these insects would make it impossible to control typhus, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis.
Throughout Israel, the largest health threat would be posed by tens or even hundreds of thousands of rotting human corpses. More than likely, even for a covenant people that must always “choose life,” the survivors would envy the dead.
This is only the tip of the iceberg; indeed, it is a vast understatement of what could be expected. Unpredictable interactions between individual effects of nuclear weapons would make matters much worse. It follows beyond any shadow of a doubt that Israel must never allow a still openly genocidal Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Although any Israeli defensive strike would surely encounter staggering operational difficulties, this is one of those unique times in which the expected costs of doing nothing (and economic sanctions means “doing nothing”) would be much, much greater.
We Jews are a covenant people, and also an eternal people. We cannot be destroyed, but the Jewish State does have existential vulnerabilities, and we do have an unending obligation to do whatever is necessary to stay alive. The Jewish State must provide the already-ingathered portion of Jews with both ordinary and extraordinary protections. This is not a negotiable expectation.
In a recent commentary, “Kiddush Hashem in the Streets of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Eliezer Waldman – Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshivat Nir Kiryat Arba – refers to several Torah commandments that instruct us to kill our enemies before they kill us, and to the precise warning in Parshat Kedoshim not to stand idly by the spilling of a neighbor’s blood (Vayikra 19:16).”Any act taken to save Jewish lives from their murderers,”writes Rabbi Waldman, “is a sanctification of G-d’s name.” Significantly, this extraordinary imperative binds Jews not only as individuals, but also (and perhaps even more emphatically) as stewards of the existing Jewish State, that is, as leaders of the current State of Israel.
Copyright, © The Jewish Press, August 15, 2008. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue. He is the author of several of the earliest major books on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). He was also Chair of Project Daniel.