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Nuclear Deterrence And Nuclear Conflict: The Case Of Israel

the sole discernible rationale of the “bomb in the basement” has been and must remain nuclear deterrence. Without rational adversaries, there can be no successful nuclear deterrence.

L-R Avigdor Lieberman, the Defense Minister of Israel, Gadi Eizenkot the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and his staff  (Photo IDF Spokesperson)


By Louis René Beres

‘Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch” – Karel Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

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Plausibly, from the very beginning Israel has had at least one continuing “mantra” regarding its undeclared and ambiguous nuclear weapons capability. It is that nuclear ordnance can never reasonably succeed except through carefully calculated non-use. In other words, the sole discernible rationale of the “bomb in the basement” has been and must remain nuclear deterrence.

By definition, of course, this core objective is always contingent upon the expected rationality of pertinent adversaries. Without rational adversaries, there can be no successful nuclear deterrence.

But, going forward, precisely how valid is this altogether critical assumption? For the moment, Israel’s identifiable enemies may still be considered rational, and must also be nation-states. This is the case even though sometimes Israel’s adversaries might operate in formal or informal alliance with other states, and/ or as “hybridized” actors working cooperatively with recognizable terrorist groups. At some point, moreover, Israel’s nuclear enemies could be expanded to include certain sub-state adversaries acting by themselves; most likely Iran-sponsored Hezbollah.

Very soon, prima facie, Israel’s strategists must prepare to cope with increasingly substantial and complex nuclear scenarios. For the country’s nuclear deterrence posture to work long-term, particular would-be aggressor states will need to be told more rather than less about Israel’s nuclear targeting doctrine, primarily about 1) its “counter value” (counter-city) versus “counterforce” (nuclear war fighting) choices, and 2) its expected actions regarding the vulnerability and penetration capability of Israel’s nuclear forces. In essence, this means that to best prepare for all conceivable nuclear attack scenarios, Israel must plan, inter alia, for the measured replacement of “deliberate ambiguity” with various appropriate levels of “disclosure.”

For Israel, one point is indisputable. The only true and continuous purpose of nuclear weapons must be nuclear deterrence. Still, there remain certain residual circumstances under which Israeli nuclear deterrence could fail. Here, in these particular circumstances, there could ensue unprecedented belligerent firings of catastrophic weapons.

How might such intolerable failures actually arise? Four principal though not mutually exclusive scenarios should come quickly to the strategist’s mind. Israel’s strategic planners must analyze these nuanced and theory-based narratives closely. Correspondingly, they must prepare to deal effectively with all of them.

As quickly as possible, also, these strategists must fashion similarly guiding narratives involving certain significant non-state adversaries, both Sunni and Shi’ite. In this connection, it may sometimes be necessary for Israel to “choose sides” among its relevant adversaries, thus effectively lining up with one foe against another. Needless to say, special attention should then be directed toward comparatively assessing and subsequently obstructing all adversarial opportunities to “go nuclear.”

Examined together with the four basic scenarios outlined below, these narratives could help provide Israel with the needed theoretical armaments to best prevent a nuclear attack and/or nuclear war. “Theory is a net” – without it, Israeli strategic analysis must be more-or-less disjointed and unfocused.


Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states ever launch a nuclear first strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first strikes were to involve other unconventional weapons, such as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might then still launch a nuclear reprisal. This grave decision would depend, in large measure, upon Jerusalem’s informed expectations of any follow-on enemy aggression, and also on its associated calculations of comparative damage limitation.

If Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could not automatically be ruled out, especially if: a) the state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or b) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish state.

A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out only in those discernible circumstances where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, “typical” (that is, consistent with all previous instances of attack, in both degree and intent) and hard-target oriented (that is, directed toward Israeli weapons and related military infrastructures, rather than at its civilian populations).


Should Israel ever feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s)’ response would largely determine Jerusalem’s next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would doubtlessly turn to some available form of nuclear counter-retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other, non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, Israel could also feel pressed to take the escalatory initiative. Again, this decision would depend upon Jerusalem’s judgments of enemy intent, and upon its corollary calculations of essential damage limitation.

Should the enemy state response to Israel’s preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish state would then move to any nuclear counter-retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation was “all-out” and directed toward Israeli civilian populations as well as to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not immediately be excluded.

Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were identifiably proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and accompanied by certain explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.


It is highly implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would be both perfectly rational, and permissible under authoritative international law, it is unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such irremediably dire circumstances.

Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were usable in a fashion still consistent with longstanding laws of war, this most extreme form of preemption could represent an expressly egregious violation of international law.

Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/ political impact on the entire world community would be strongly negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could conceivably be expected only: a) where Israel’s pertinent state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish state; b) where these enemies had made it clear that their intentions paralleled their genocidal capabilities; c) where these enemies were believed ready to begin an operational “countdown to launch”; and d) where Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not achieve the needed minimum levels of damage limitation – that is, levels consistent with physical preservation of the Jewish state.


Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any actual conflict between Israel and its many enemies, either by Israel or by a regional foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, could ensue. This would hold true so long as: a) enemy first strikes did not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption did not destroy the Jewish state’s nuclear counter- retaliatory capability; c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons did not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and d) Israeli retaliation for conventional first strikes did not destroy the enemy’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

This means that to satisfy its most indispensable survival imperatives, Israel must take appropriate steps to ensure the likelihood of a) and b) above, and the simultaneous unlikelihood of c) and d).

Above everything else, Israel must prepare thoughtfully for all possible nuclear war contingencies, even when any such preparations would be enormously “expensive.” For Israel, looking ahead, even its most evidently threatening nuclear weapons could prove absolutely useless or self-defeating unless there had first been suitable advance planning for every imaginable conflict scenario. It goes without saying that although such planning will seem exhausting, both intellectually and fiscally, it also represents an utterly incontestable sine qua non for the Jewish state’s national survival.


Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.


This article was first published at the Jerusalem Post



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