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Why Israel Should Not Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons: An Informed Response to Obama Adviser, Joseph Cirincione (Part III)


Preemption Options

We have seen that, among other purposes, Israel needs nuclear weapons to undertake and/or to support various forms of preemption. In making its preemption decisions, Israel must determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of anticipatory self-defense, would be cost-effective. This would depend upon a number of critical variables, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployment; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected U.S. and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.

Regarding preemption options, Israel’s overall question is this: As Jerusalem must plan for such forms of anticipatory self-defense, against which particular configurations of hard targets should they be directed and when should they be mounted? If it is assumed that enemy states will only add to their chemical/biological/nuclear arsenals, and that these additions will make effective Israeli preemptions more and more difficult − if not altogether impossible − rational Israeli strategy would seem to compel Jerusalem to strike defensively as soon as possible. If, however, it is assumed that there will be no significant enlargement/deployment of enemy unconventional weapons over time, this may suggest a diminished rationale for Israel to strike first.

Israel’s inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances could also be affected by the steps taken by prospective target states to guard against Israeli preemption. Should Israel refrain too long from striking first, enemy states could implement protective measures that would pose additional hazards to Israel. These measures include the attachment of certain launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems, and/or the adoption of “launch-on-warning” policies. Such policies would call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles on mere receipt of warning that a missile attack is underway. Requiring launch before the attacking warheads actually reached their intended targets, launch-on-warning would clearly carry grave risks of error.

Ideally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such measures from being installed in the first place, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its armaments and population centers. Yet, if such measures should become fact, Jerusalem might still calculate that a preemptive strike would be cost-effective. This is because an expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might still appear less unacceptable than the expected consequences of enemy first strikes.

Perhaps the single most important factor in Israeli judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence − as we have already seen − would not work. This means that enemy strikes could be expected even if enemy leaders understood that Israel had “successfully” deployed its own nuclear weapons in survivable modes, that Israel’s weapons were entirely capable of penetrating enemy active defenses, and that Israel’s leaders were altogether willing to retaliate.

Faced with an irrational enemy bent upon unconventional aggression, Israel could have no effective choice but to abandon reliance on traditional modes of nuclear deterrence. Even if it is not faced with an irrational enemy, however, Israel will have to plan carefully for preemption options, planning that must take into account Jerusalem’s nuclear weapons. In the course of such planning, it will be important to recognize that enemy capabilities and intentions are not separate but interpenetrating, interdependent and interactive. This means: (1) capabilities affect intentions and vice-versa; and (2) the combined effects of capabilities and intentions may produce policy outcomes that are greatly accelerated and/or are more than the simple sum of these effects.

Let us consider the particular dangers from Iran. For the moment, those who would still downplay the Iranian threat to Israel (as in the case of Joseph Cirincione, above) often argue that Teheran’s unconventional capabilities remain problematic and/or that its willingness to attack Israel − fundamentalist ideologies/motivations notwithstanding − is tolerably low. Yet, over the next one to two years, that country’s further development of nuclear weapons could be irreversible, creating conditions whereby a first-strike against Israel might be construed as altogether rational. Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, an Iranian leadership that believes it can strike Israel with impunity, near-impunity or at least without incurring what it defines as unacceptable costs, could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation would be heightened to the extent that Iran remained uncertain about Israel’s own preemption plans. Here, Iranian capabilities would affect, and possible even determine, Iranian intentions.

The Iranian threat to Israel might, on the other hand, originate from a different direction. In this scenario, Iran’s intentions toward the Jewish State − irremediably hostile and perhaps even genocidal − could animate Teheran’s accelerated development of nuclear military capabilities. Here, representing genuinely far-reaching hatreds rather than mere bluster and propagandistic bravado, Iranian diatribes against Israel would ensure the production/deployment of extraordinarily destructive forces, weapons and postures that could plausibly threaten Israel’s physical survival. What I have been describing are circumstances where Iranian intentions could affect, and possibly even determine, Iranian capabilities − circumstances that warrant very careful attention in Jerusalem.

But what if Iran’s intention toward Israel were not irremediably hostile or genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of genuinely belligerent motivations, but a position designed entirely for intranational and/or international political consumption? The short and obvious answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian capabilities vis-à-vis Israel. Yet, upon reflection, it is likely that even inauthentic expressions of intent could, over time, become authentic, that repeated again and again (in the manner of a ritual incantation), such expressions could become self-fulfilling.

It follows that it would certainly be unreasonable for Israel to draw comfort from the argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Rather, such intentions could impact capabilities decisively over time. Backed by appropriate nuclear weapons, preemption options, therefore, must remain open and viable to Israel.

An important factor in our discussion of intentions, capabilities and preemption options is the still ongoing “Peace Process,” now better known as the “Road Map.” Conventional wisdom has been quick to suggest that this process, by demonstrating and codifying Israel’s commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes, diminishes the enemy (Iranian) threat. After all, wouldn’t world public opinion uniformly condemn Iran for any act of aggression directed against Israel? And wouldn’t, therefore, Iranian aggressive intentions be reduced or even removed − a change that could slow down Teheran’s pertinent unconventional militarization and consequently, the overall danger to Israel from that enemy state?

Probably not. The conventional wisdom may be wrong, or merely partial. Following the earlier Oslo Agreement, Israel’s inclination to preempt enemy aggression has likely been diminished. After all, virtually the entire global community would frown upon such preemption in the midst of an ongoing, incremental search for “peace” in the region.

There is more. If Iran should recognize these effective inhibitions on Israeli preemption options (and there is every reason to believe that they would recognize these inhibitions), that enemy state could calculate as follows: “As our (Iranian) militarization will be less threatened by Israeli preemptive attack during the ‘Peace Process,’ we (Iran) should increase our capabilities − especially our unconventional weapons capabilities − as quickly as practicable.” Such a calculation, as we now know, could enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel and could make cost-effective hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise even have been considered or even have been possible.

If the “Peace Process” produces a Palestinian State, a result that now looks increasingly likely, especially with the support for a “Two State Solution” in Washington, the effects on enemy capabilities and intentions, and therefore on Israeli preemption options, will be significant. Here, Israel’s substantial loss of strategic depth could be recognized by enemy states as a significant military liability for Jerusalem. Such recognition, in turn, could heat up enemy intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities, and consequently, a heightened risk of war.

Israel could foresee such enemy calculations and seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of different ways. Jerusalem could decide that it was time to take its bomb out of the “basement” as a deterrence-enhancing measure, but this might not be enough of a productive strategy. It could, therefore, accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets, strikes backed up by Israeli nuclear weapons. Made aware of such Israeli intentions − intentions that would derive from Israel’s new territorial vulnerabilities − enemy states could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly and more quickly for nuclearization and/or for first-strike attacks against the Jewish State.

Taken by itself, a Palestinian state would affect the capabilities and intentions of both Israel and its enemies. But if such a state were created at the same time that Israel reduced or abandoned its nuclear weapons capabilities, the impact could be even more substantial. This scenario should not be dismissed out of hand.

What would happen if Israel were to actually relinquish its nuclear options as Joseph Cirincione has allegedly recommended? Under such circumstances, Israel would not only be more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, it would also be deprived of its essential preemption options. This is the case, per my earlier argument here, because Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence would be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, and because Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100 percent effective against enemy unconventional forces. A less than 100 percent level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Israel had a “leak proof” ATBM (anti-tactical ballistic missile) capability in the “Arrow” system, but such a capability is inherently unachievable.

Copyright ©, The Jewish Press, June 13, 2008. All rights reserved.

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.

About the Author: 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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