Israel’s policy of opacity or deliberate ambiguity on nuclear weapons had already been breached long before Prime Minister Olmert’s public statement on December 11th. And it was also breached at the prime-ministerial level, no less. More than 10 years ago, Shimon Peres explicitly undermined Israel’s longstanding commitment to keep the bomb in the “basement.” At that time, speaking with a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, Peres had publicly advanced the preposterous idea of unilateral denuclearization in exchange for “peace.”
The Peres proposal was extended apart from any coherent strategic doctrine. Such doctrine, however, is now needed to provide Israel with broad policy frameworks, from which particular decisions and tactics might be drawn. In fashioning its essential strategic doctrine, Israel must begin by addressing the following major questions:
Should Israel begin to identify certain general elements of its nuclear arsenal and nuclear plans? Would it be in Israel’s best security interests to make certain that others are aware – in prudentially general terms – of its nuclear targeting doctrine; its retaliatory and counter-retaliatory capacities; its willingness under particular conditions to preempt; and its particular capacities for ballistic missile defense?
Although the answers to these questions would be necessarily complex and very general, one thing is clear: The Islamic awareness of an Israeli bomb does not automatically imply that Israel has credible nuclear deterrence. After all, if Israel’s nuclear arsenal were seen as vulnerable to first strikes, it might not persuade enemy states to resist attacking the Jewish State. Similarly, if Israel’s political leadership were seen to be unwilling to resort to nuclear weapons in reprisal for anything but unconventional and fully exterminatory strikes, these enemy states may not be deterred.
If Israel’s targeting doctrine were judged to be predominantly “counterforce” targeted (that is, targeted on enemy state weapons and supporting military infrastructures), enemy states, inter alia, could so fear an Israeli first-strike that they would consider more seriously striking first themselves.
Aware of the counter-city/counterforce implications, Israel’s leaders must quickly determine not only the best configuration of these two targeting doctrines, but also the most favorable means and levels of disclosure. How shall enemy states be apprised best, of Israel’s targeting doctrine, so that these states would be deterred from various forms of first strike and retaliatory strike actions? It is no longer enough that Israel’s enemies merely know that the Jewish State has nuclear weapons. They must also be convinced that these arms are secure and usable, and that Israel’s leadership is actually willing to launch these weapons in response to certain first strike and retaliatory attacks.
Israel’s strategic doctrine must aim at strengthening nuclear deterrence. It can meet this objective only by convincing enemy states that a first-strike upon Israel will always be irrational. This means communicating to enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. Hence, Israel’s strategic doctrine must always convince prospective attackers that their intended victim has both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Where an enemy state, considering an attack upon Israel, were unconvinced about either or both of these components of nuclear deterrence, it could choose to strike first. This would depend in part upon the particular value it placed upon the expected consequences of such an attack.
Regarding willingness, even if Israel were prepared to respond to certain Islamic attacks with nuclear reprisals, enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence.
It is also conceivable that Israel would, in fact, lack the willingness to retaliate, and that this lack of willingness would be correctly perceived by enemy state decision-makers. In this case, Israeli nuclear deterrence could be immobilized not because of “confused signals,” but because of signals that had not been properly distorted.
Regarding capacity, even if Israel were to maintain a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack were believed capable of sufficiently destroying Israel’s atomic arsenal and pertinent infrastructures, that country’s nuclear deterrent could be immobilized.
Even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured, such that they could not be destroyed by an enemy first-strike, enemy misperceptions or misjudgments about Israeli vulnerability could still bring about the failure of Israeli nuclear deterrence. A further complication here concerns enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missiles, which might contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering the attacker’s expected costs.
All this brings us back to the over-all importance of strategic doctrine and Middle East policy. To the extent that Israel’s doctrine actually identifies nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal – forms calibrating Israeli retaliations to particular levels of provocation – disclosure of such doctrine could contribute to Israeli nuclear deterrence. Without such disclosure, Israel’s enemies will be kept guessing about the Jewish State’s probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could serve Israel’s survival for a while longer, but – at one time or another – could fail catastrophically.
Prime Minister Olmert was certainly correct in continuing to lift the veil of Israel’s nuclear program. But now it is also essential for Israel to further enhance its nuclear deterrence posture by considering various and additional forms of selective disclosure. Such carefully constructed and sequential steps will be needed especially as an explicitly genocidal Iran proceeds unimpeded, with its accelerating nuclearization.
Copyright, The Jewish Press, December 29, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, his work is well known to Israeli and American military/intelligence communities.