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What If It Should Really Happen? How Nuclear War Could Begin In A Very Bad Neighborhood (First Of Two Parts)


Beres-Louis-Rene

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The year 2006 could become a fateful one for Israel and for the entire world. Still struggling to survive in the very worst of international “neighborhoods,” the always imperiled Jewish State knows only too well that nuclear war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Listening to the chilling bluster and bravado from the openly murderous president of Iran, it is increasingly evident to every prudent leader in Jerusalem that nuclear weapons can never be allowed in that particular Islamic regime. With this existential awareness in mind, it is now altogether likely that an Israeli preemptive strike against certain pertinent Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures will take place sometime before the summer. If it does, this strike – following the recommendations originally detailed by Project Daniel three years ago – will be an expression of what is correctly called “anticipatory self-defense” under international law.

But the nuclear threat from Iran is only the most obvious existential danger to Israel, merely the “tip of the iceberg.” Let us look together now behind the news. What is the basic situation of Israel’s own nuclear weapons, and why is this situation entirely different from what is rapidly emerging in Iran?

Israel’s nuclear forces have never even been formally acknowledged. Hence, they certainly have never been used in a threatening fashion by Israel’s civilian or military leaders. Israel’s nuclear weapons, unacknowledged and unthreatening, exist only to prevent certain forms of aggression. This includes the prevention of genocide.

It is absolutely inconceivable that Israel’s nuclear deterrent force would ever be used except in defensive reprisal for certain massive enemy first-strikes, especially for Arab and/or Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or certain biological weapons. For the time being, at least, Israel’s enemies are not nuclear, but – as we have just noted with Iran – this could change dramatically in the foreseeable future. If it should change, Israel’s nuclear weapons could continue to reduce the risks of unconventional war, but only as long as the pertinent enemy states would (1) remain rational; and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate massively if attacked with nuclear and/or certain biological weapons of mass destruction.

As recognized meaningfully by Project Daniel, there are many complex problems to identify if a bellicose enemy state is allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. These problems would belie the conceptually agreeable notion of balanced nuclear deterrence. The Middle East neighborhood would simply not allow the sort of stable equilibrium that once characterized U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” an enemy state in this neighborhood could opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of that country’s devastating nuclear capability. Israel would certainly respond, to the extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine (see some of my prior columns special to The Jewish Press), such a reprisal (per precise recommendations from Project Daniel) might be launched against the aggressor’s capital city or against a similarly high- value urban target. There would be absolutely no assurances, in response to this sort of Arab/Islamic aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.

What if enemy first-strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? Here Israel might still launch a reasonably 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 still not be ruled out altogether. This is especially the case 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. In this connection, recognizing Israel’s uniquely small size, the threshold of existential harms would understandably be far lower than wholesale physical devastation. To quote directly from the Project Daniel final report, Israel’s Strategic Future: “In an age of Total War, Israel must remain fully aware of threats to its very continuance as a viable state….Certain WMD attacks upon Israeli cities could be genuinely existential. For example, biological or nuclear attacks upon Tel-Aviv that would kill many thousands of Israeli citizens could have profound and dire consequences for the continued viability of the country.”

Faced with imminent and existential attacks, Israel – properly taking its cue from The National Security Strategy of the United States of America -could decide to preempt enemy aggression with conventional forces. First announced on September 20, 2002, this still-evolving American strategy affirms the growing reasonableness of anticipatory self-defense under international law. If Israel were to draw upon such authoritative expressions of current U.S. policy, the targeted state’s response would 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 determine to take a quantum escalatory initiative. This sort of initiative is known in military parlance as “escalation dominance,” and could be essential, for Israel, to favorable intrawar deterrence.

If the enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is highly improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. On the other hand, 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 existential strike, for all intents and purposes – an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be ruled out. 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.

(To be continued)

© Copyright, The Jewish Press. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, Professor Beres is Chair of “Project Daniel,” which submitted its Final Report on Israel’s Strategic Future to Prime Minister Sharon on January 16, 2003.

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About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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