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According to a May 1, 2008 article by Aaron Klein in WorldNetDaily, Joseph Cirincione, director of nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, and an adviser on nuclear issues to Senator Barack Obama, has essentially urged Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Professor Cirincione allegedly made this suggestion, inter alia, as a means of getting Iran to back off its ongoing path to nuclearization (a sort of quid pro quo argument), coupling it together with related comments that “certain hard-line Israelis” were using the Syrian nuclear story (that Israel preemptively destroyed a Syrian nuclear site last September) to prevent serious talks between Jerusalem and Damascus.

To White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, the Syrian nuclear story was hardly “nonsense.” “The Syrian regime was building a covert nuclear reactor in its eastern desert capable of producing plutonium.” said Perino. Further, she continued: “We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria’s covert nuclear activities. We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on September 6 of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes.”


Even if the White House had been mistaken on this statement, there are no foreseeable circumstances under which Mr. Cirincione’s strategic advice for Israel could make sense – at least for Israel. More than any other state on earth, Israel needs nuclear weapons. To give them up would be tantamount to accepting another Jewish genocide. This is not hyperbole, but rather the inescapable conclusion of sound and hard strategic analysis.

My faithful readers in The Jewish Press deserve more than just another broad and unexplained statement of Jewish national responsibility. What is needed, now, is a comprehensive and systematic examination of Israel’s nuclear position. Why, exactly, does Israel need its nuclear weapons? Here, finally, is a complete and informed answer:

1. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker’s active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel’s probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state.

2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional

(chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this connection, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”

3. Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks. This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (more than likely, they would almost certainly be non-nuclear), but only that they could conceivably be nuclear. Of course, should Israel ever need to use its nuclear forces for such a purpose, it would signify the failure of these forces as a deterrent (per number 2, above). Significantly, such failure is increasingly plausible because of the problematic nature of nuclear deterrence in general, and because of the particular circumstances of the Islamic Middle East regarding decisional rationality.

4. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy nuclear assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. This relates to the need for “escalation dominance.”

5. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy non-nuclear (conventional/chemical/biological) assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. Again, this illustrates Israel’s incontestable need to dominate escalatory processes.

6. Israel needs nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting. Although, in the best of all possible worlds, this need will never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid such use (Project Daniel made this a major point in its final report, Israel’s Strategic Future, to former Prime Minister Sharon), it cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, it must be taken seriously by Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative.” Among the probable paths to nuclear war fighting are the following: enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes. Other pertinent paths to nuclear war fighting include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks among Israel and regional enemy states and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the Jewish State.

As long as it can be assumed that Israel is determined to endure, there are conditions where Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could resort to nuclear war fighting. This holds true if: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy 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 second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities. It follows, from the standpoint of Israel’s nuclear requirements that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv should prepare to do what is needed to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

7. Israel needs nuclear weapons for the residual “Samson Option.” Although such a use of nuclear weapons, by definition, would be profoundly catastrophic, Israel is apt to understand that it would be better to “die with the Philistines” than to die alone. This sort of understanding is much more than a matter of Jewish honor, and also much more than a refutation of the so-called “Masada complex” (suicide without punishment of the aggressor). It could (depending upon awareness by enemy states) represent an integral and indispensable element of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the biblical analogy is somewhat misleading. Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing “suicide” or even necessarily committing suicide. For states, the criteria of “life” and “death” are hardly as clear-cut as they are for individual persons. Finally, it is essential that Israel’s leaders, in considering possible uses of nuclear weapons, regard the Samson Option as one to be precluded by correct resort to all other nuclear options. Stated differently, a resort to the Samson Option by Israel would imply the complete failure of all other options and of the failure of its nuclear weapons to provide essential national security.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, May 30, 2008. All rights reserved.

(To be continued)

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. He is author of some of the earliest major books and articles on Israel’s nuclear strategy.


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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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