The views expressed in this eight-column article on Project Daniel are solely those of Professor Louis René Beres, and may not reflect the opinions of any other members of Project Daniel, or of any government.
It is highly unlikely, The Group reasoned, that any enemy state would ever calculate that the expected benefits of annihilating Israel would be so great as to outweigh the expected costs of its own annihilation. Excluding an irrational enemy state, a prospect that falls by definition outside the logic of nuclear deterrence, all state enemies of Israel would assuredly refrain from nuclear and/or biological attacks upon Israel that would presumptively elicit massive counter-value reprisals. Naturally, this reasoning would obtain only to the extent that these enemy states fully believed Israel would actually make good on its threats.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent, once it were made open and appropriately explicit, would need to make clear to all prospective nuclear enemies the following: “Israel’s nuclear weapons, dispersed, multiplied and hardened, are targeted upon your major cities. These weapons will never be used against these targets except in retaliation for certain WMD aggressions. Unless our population centers are struck first by nuclear attack or certain levels of biological attack or by combined nuclear/biological attack, we will not harm your cities.”
This reasoning, we knew, would disturb some readers and policy-makers. Yet, the counter-value targeting strategy recommended by Project Daniel still represents Israel’s best hope for avoiding a nuclear or biological war. It remains, therefore, the most humane strategy available.
The Israeli alternative, an expressed counter force targeting doctrine, would produce a markedly higher probability of nuclear or nuclear/biological war. And such a war, even if all weapons remained targeted on the other side’s military forces and structures (a very optimistic assumption) would entail enormously high levels of “collateral damage.”
The very best weapons, Clausewitz wrote, are those that achieve their objectives without ever actually being used. This is especially the case with nuclear weapons; Israel’s nuclear weapons can succeed only through non-use. Recognizing this, Project Daniel made very clear in its Final Report to then-Prime Minister Sharon that nuclear war fighting must always be avoided by Israel wherever possible. Nothing has happened in the past eight years to in any way change this judgment.
The Project Daniel Group recommended that Israel do whatever it must to prevent enemy nuclearization, up to and including pertinent acts of preemption. Should these measures fail, measures that would be permissible under international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” the Jewish State should immediately end its posture of nuclear ambiguity with fully open declarations of counter-value targeting. Again, just how this imperative cessation would take operational shape is a question that now needs to be addressed squarely and expertly in both Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.
In our age of Total War, Israel must always remain fully aware of those harms that would threaten its very continuance as a state. Although the Jewish state has always recognized an overriding obligation to seek peace through negotiation and diplomacy wherever possible, there are times when its commitment to peaceful settlement will not be reciprocated. Moreover, as noted by Project Daniel, there are times when the idea of an existential threat may reasonably apply to a particular level of harms that falls well below the threshold of complete national annihilation.
Examining pertinent possibilities, The Group noted three distinct but interrelated existential threats to Israel:
1. Biological/Nuclear (BN) threats from states;
2. BN threats from terror organizations; and
3. BN threats from combined efforts of states and terror organizations.
To the extent that certain Arab states and Iran are now allowed to develop WMD capabilities, Israel may have to deal someday with an “anonymous attack scenario.” Here, the aggressor enemy state would not identify itself, and Israeli post-attack identification would be exceedingly difficult. What is Israel to do in such a confused and urgent crisis situation?
The Group recommended to the former prime minister that “Israel must identify explicitly and early on that all enemy Arab states and Iran are subject to massive Israeli reprisal in the event of a BN attack upon Israel.” We recommended, further, that “massive” reprisals be targeted at between 10 and 20 large enemy cities (counter-value targeting), and that the nuclear yields of such Israeli reprisals be in very high range. Such deterrent threats by Israel would be very compelling to all rational enemies, but, at the same time, would likely have little or no effect upon irrational ones.
In the case of genuinely irrational adversaries, Israel’s only hope for safety will likely lie in appropriate and operationally feasible acts of preemption.
A policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which once obtained between the United States and the Soviet Union, would never work between Israel and its Arab/Iranian enemies. Rather, the Project Daniel Group recommended that Israel must prevent its enemies from acquiring BN status, and that any notion of BN “parity” between Israel and its enemies would be intolerable. Accordingly, The Group advised the prime minister: “Israel immediately adopt – as highest priority – a policy of preemption with respect to enemy existential threats.” Such a policy would be based upon the more limited definition of “existential” described above, and would also enhance Israel’s overall deterrence posture.
Recognizing the close partnership and overlapping interests between Israel and the United States, the Project Daniel Group strongly supported the American War Against Terror (WAT). In this connection, we had urged full cooperation and mutuality between Jerusalem and Washington regarding communication of intentions. If for any reason the United States should decide against exercising preemption options against certain developing weapons of mass destruction, Israel must reserve for itself the unhindered prerogative to undertake its own preemption options.
Significantly, in view of US inaction since 2003 on the Iran front, inaction that can be assumed to continue under President Barack Obama, it now appears that this particular prerogative may yet have to be exercised. From the standpoint of comparative force size alone, the United States Air Force would have been preferable to the Israel Air Force in undertaking any essential acts of anticipatory self-defense against Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures. To be sure, the IAF is exceptionally capable, but it is also very small.
The Group began its initial deliberations with the following urgent metaphor in mind: Israel could face the hazard of a suicide-bomber in macrocosm. In this scenario, an enemy Arab state or Iran would act against Israel without any ordinary regard for expected retaliatory consequences. Here, in the fashion of an individual suicide bomber who acts without fear of personal consequences, indeed, who actually welcomes the most extreme personal consequence, which is death, an enemy Arab state and/or Iran could launch WMD attacks against Israel with full knowledge and expectation of overwhelming Israeli reprisals. The conclusion to be drawn from this scenario is that Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis “suicide states” would have been immobilized by enemy irrationality, and that Israel’s only recourse in such circumstances would have been appropriate forms of preemption.
Louis René Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.