C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin du monde?
(“It is beautiful, isn’t it, the end of the world?”)
Jean Giraudoux, Sodome et Gomorrhe
After absorbing any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would certainly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would likely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. There would be absolutely no assurances, in response to this sort of genocidal aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets. This point should certainly not be lost on the principal decision makers in Tehran.
What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In this case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation. Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out. This is plausible if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Recognizing Israel’s exceptionally small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.
Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel – even if it had delayed too long – could still 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 (even indispensable) to Israel’s preservation of intra-war deterrence. Here we need to bear in mind that deterrence does not necessarily cease functioning immediately upon the commencement of hostilities. It can continue to play a different, but still more or less productive, role during the ensuing conflict.
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 (which refused to prohibit certain residual resorts to nuclear weapons that are essential to national survival), it is implausible that Israel would ever permit itself to reach such all-or-nothing circumstances. Also worth mentioning is that Israel remains pledged to the “purity of arms,” and to incomparably strict compliance with humanitarian international law, especially the minimization of collateral (non-combatant) harms.
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 forthright 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. To reject this particular argument on Israeli nuclear preemption as impossible or implausible would require an antecedent assumption that self-preservation is simply not Israel’s highest priority.
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 prompt and immediate 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, and as I have also mentioned in a number of previous columns, it is always in Israel’s interest to avoid nuclear war fighting wherever possible.
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. Significantly, 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. This point is frequently overlooked by all those who would oppose any pertinent forms of anticipatory self-defense by Israel.
Should ill-considered enemy deployments be allowed, Israel could then forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Its only remaining alternatives to nuclear preemption would be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to do nothing, thereby relying for security on the increasingly doubtful logic of nuclear deterrence and the always inherently limited protections of ballistic missile defense. 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 still be reduced by certain Israeli non-nuclear preemptions.
Although the risks to the United States posed by an Iranian bomb are substantially less existential than are the risks to Israel, these hazards could still include acts of nuclear terrorism against the American homeland. It follows that whoever finally emerges in November as the next president of the United States, he – optimally, in close cooperation with Israel – will have to prepare meaningfully (if belatedly) for anticipatory self-defense. The only option likely to be more costly to both Israel and the United States than such a dangerous but still law-enforcing preemption would be to allow Iran to go fully nuclear.
The important idea of apocalypse figures scripturally in both Judaism and Christianity, but it very likely appeared for the very first time among the Zoroastrians in ancient Persia. Interestingly, this is basically the same region as modern day Iran. For President Ahmadinejad, there could be recognizably great beauty in transforming the “World of War” into the “World of Islam.” For him, “therefore,” an “end of the world” spawned by such transformation could open the way for life everlasting. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the Iranian leader may already be waiting excitedly for the apocalypse.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters (The Journal of the US Army War College); The Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Some of his earlier writings on both strategic and jurisprudential matters appeared in such journals as World Politics (Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism and Security International; Policy Sciences and Armed Forces and Society. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its private final report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.