“For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war.”
– Proverbs 24:6
That Israel’s strategic posture remains closely intertwined with US foreign policy is hardly a newsworthy observation. Yet in the rather incoherent
Trump Era, this traditional linkage is potentially more perilous than before as the president’s orientation to threat-system dynamics will need
to be countered, at least in part, by a selectively broadened commitment to national self-reliance.
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Above all else, this means more expressly focused attention on Israel’s nuclear strategy, especially the continuance or modification of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” By definition, of course, because there exists no codified or easily verifiable Israeli nuclear strategy, little if any of such Trump-generated re-posturing will be generally recognizable or even visible.
Significantly, whether visible or not, various dynamic policy intersections could be expected. Some presumptively required changes in Israel’s nuclear strategy will then “feedback” into US strategic policy, thus engendering certain further alterations of Israeli policy, and so on.
This means, prima facie, a more or less robust expansion of particular interpenetrations and interactions between US and Israeli strategic postures, one that could prove not merely additive, but genuinely “synergistic.” With such an expansion, both Washington and Jerusalem could quickly begin to expect certain “force multiplying” Israeli nuclear policy changes, ones wherein the “whole” of the country’s proposed alterations exceeds the simple sum of its component “parts.”
For Jerusalem, many subsidiary questions will also need to be answered. How, exactly, should its traditional stance on nuclear ambiguity be adapted
to plausible expectations of Trump-policy bellicosity? For Israel, it can never just be about convincing adversaries that it is a bona fide nuclear
power. Rather, it is necessary, inter alia, that these states further believe that Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that it would be
willing to employ these weapons in certain circumstances.
On Israel’s “bomb in the basement” posture, the Trump Era may mandate identifiable changes. More precisely, certain regional instabilities will
create enhanced reasons to doubt that Israel could benefit from any determined continuance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Israel’s own defense and intelligence communities that the country’s senior leadership
already understands such informed skepticism.
How should this leadership proceed?
It will be a complex or “mind over mind” task. Over time, Israel will be imperiled by certain existential threats that justify its nuclear weapons status,
and that will call for a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. Even now, this basic justification exists beyond any reasonable doubt. Without
such advanced weapons and doctrine Israel could not survive indefinitely, especially if certain neighboring regimes should sometime become more
adversarial, more jihadist, and/or less risk-averse.
Going forward, Israeli nuclear weapons and nuclear doctrine could prove more and more vital to both predictable and unpredictable scenarios
requiring preemptive military action or suitable retaliation.
For Israel, merely possessing its nuclear weapons, even when recognized by enemy states, cannot automatically ensure successful nuclear deterrence. Although counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could improve the credibility of Israel’s critical nuclear deterrent. With this point in mind, the potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be gainfully reduced. This reduction would concern selective Israeli disclosure of certain nuclear weapons response capabilities.
Carefully limited, yet still more explicit, it would center on distinctly major and inter-penetrating issues of Israeli nuclear capability and decisional willingness. Much of Israel’s underlying survival problem rests upon a prohibitive geography, and it must cost-effectively compensate for its irremediable lack of protective mass. Most important, in this regard, will be any ongoing and future reliance upon nuclear sea-basing (submarines). Naturally, this sort of reliance could make sense only if all relevant adversaries were simultaneously presumed to be rational.
Another key component of Israel’s multi-layered security posture lies in its ballistic missile defenses. Yet even the well-regarded and successfully tested Arrow, now augmented by newer, shorter-range and systematically integrated operations of related active defenses, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. As no system of missile defense can ever be entirely “leak proof,” and as even a single incoming nuclear missile that managed to penetrate Arrow or its corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Jerusalem ought never seek ultimate existential security in active defense.
Still, potentially at least, this fearsome geographic debility could prove less daunting if Israel’s continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were
suitably altered. Always, Jerusalem must adapt. Any traditional Israeli stance of undeclared nuclear capacity is unlikely to work indefinitely, all
the more so in an inherently unpredictable Trump era.
For now, at least, leaving aside a jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan, the most obviously unacceptable “leakage” threat would come from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, a newly nuclear Iran would need convincing proof that Israel’s atomic weapons are both invulnerable and penetration-capable. Without such certainty, a moment could conceivably arise wherein Tehran would accept the cost-effectiveness of a calculated first strike.
Any Iranian judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend largely upon some prior Iranian
knowledge of these weapons, including their degree of protection from surprise attack, and their presumed capacity to effectively “punch through”
all deployed Iranian active and (selected) passive defenses. Of course, it is entirely possible that any heightening of conflict between Jerusalem and
Tehran resulting from a US first strike against designated Iranian assets would not quickly escalate to a nuclear dimension. Almost certainly, however, Iran would respond to any such American strikes with damaging ballistic missile attacks on Israel, and would simultaneously activate multiple and massive Hezbollah rocket strikes from Lebanon )and possibly Syria).
Reciprocally, Israel could fully activate its comprehensive air defenses, and retaliate – with or without further US support – using long-range air
(fighter jet and drone) strikes and/or surface-to-surface missile strikes. Most likely, in such expectedly opaque circumstances, the IDF would also insert special forces to conduct assorted “high-value” raids. To be sure, if US air forces were to remain engaged against Iran, their vastly superior firepower could leave Tehran’s military capabilities decimated over a relatively short timeframe.
But what if President Trump were to decide not to remain so engaged?
Any rational preemptive first strike against Iran would have to be based upon a determined readiness to follow through and fully destroy Iranian offensive capabilities. Correspondingly, this readiness could also involve a tangible capacity and willingness to “decapitate” the Iranian senior leadership. If Washington were committed to following through in Iran, Israel would then still have to focus on a massive air campaign, accompanied by a rapid ground offensive against Hezbollah.
But what if President Trump were to decide not to follow through?
There is more. For now, it is obvious that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps to dominate adversarial escalations in
any pertinent cyber-defense and cyber-war, but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction might still not be sufficient to stop Iran altogether.
For whatever reason, the sanctions leveled at Tehran over the years have had a distinctly measurable economic impact, but they also had no
determinable effect in halting the country’s nuclearization, or stopping any associated enhancements of intercontinental ballistic missile testing. Related scenarios warrant attention in Jerusalem. A nuclear Iran could decide to share certain nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah,
or perhaps with another kindred terrorist group. To prevent this, Jerusalem would need to convince Tehran that Israel possesses a range of distinctly
usable nuclear options.
In these circumstances, Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be purposefully loosened by releasing very general information regarding the availability
and survivability of (appropriately) low-yield weapons.
Regarding terror-group adversaries, Israel will need to consider the likelihood and corrosive prospects of “hybrid-wars” against various alignments of both sub-state enemies, and state and sub-state foes. In any such mixed-actor conflicts, the deterrent effectiveness of Israel’s overall nuclear strategy and doctrine would plausibly be different from what it would be against exclusively sub-state or terrorist opponents.
Moreover, a special question for Jerusalem in any such calculations would have to concern the role of nuclear strategy and doctrine against sub-state adversaries, and the particular extent to which nuclear and conventional spheres of engagement ought to remain integrated or become more operationally distinct.
In the even larger planning picture, Israel will need to conceptualize itself as both a recipient of hybrid warfare attacks and its more-or-less recognizable initiator. For both cases, any Trump-Era reluctance to stayfocused on Israeli security needs could prove significant.
Whatever its preferred policy changes of strategic direction, details will count. Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a still prospectively
nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions. Naturally, Israel
should never reveal any very specific information about its nuclear strategy, hardening, or yield-related capabilities. This is an observation
hardly worth mentioning, but for the fact that in actual strategic practice, the obvious is often misunderstood.
There is more. Any Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would not likely help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. It is possible that certain elements of Iranian leadership could sometime subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse. By definition, at least, such an enemy would not value its own continued national survival more highly than every other preference, or combination of preferences. Were its leaders ever to be or become non-rational, Iran could effectively resemble – at least in principle – a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a uniquely destabilizing specter is certainly unlikely, but it is not wholly inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect exists in already-nuclear and distinctly coup-vulnerable Pakistan.
What sorts of collaborative protections might be offered to Israel by Donald Trump? Despite the continuous bluster and bravado of the American president, he could become erratic or unpredictable in such circumstances and actually leave Israel to fend for itself. To protect itself against military strikes launched by irrational enemies, particularly those that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s basement could enhance the country’s strategic deterrence to the extent of heightening enemy perceptions of the
severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind the so-called “Samson Option,” which could better allow enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever it takes to survive.
Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, not nuclear war
fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. Israel’s small size means that any nuclear attack would threaten its very existence, and could therefore not be tolerated.
A Samson Option would make sense only in last-resort or near lastresort circumstances. If this option is to be part of a credible deterrent, an end to Israel’s deliberate ambiguity is essential. The toughest part of this transformational process will be determining the proper timing for such action vis-à-vis Israel’s security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the international community.
The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective: that is, to seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible
levels of military conflict. Today, after a genuine technical “revolution” in the Israel Air Force, it is arguable that the critical nuclear threshold
between prospective adversaries is becoming higher and therefore safer.
Although it has yet to be tested on the battlefield, the IAF now has the capacity to strike many thousands of targets over 24-hour periods – every
24 hours – with specially guided air-to-surface bombs.
This could be a game-changing revolution, especially if considered together with IDF stand-off-strike capabilities, and increasingly detailed intelligence. Regarding this paper’s concerns, it could prove especially gainful in the Trump era.
In the often counter-intuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. The precise nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon an enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s intention to apply counter-value targeting when responding to a nuclear attack. But, once again, Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too great a level of specific information.
Also worrisome, of course, is that a hesitant American president could at times be perceived as profoundly and genuinely irrational, an enemy perception that could then occasion various reciprocal forms of “anticipatory preemption” by Iran. It is also at least logically possible that this president would in fact be irrational, a bewildering prospect that would carry the very highest possible threat outcomes. Any such “preemption of the preemptor” would have been spawned by the latter’s too great “success” in pretending irrationality
In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The right time
to begin such an “end” may not yet have arrived. But at the precise moment that Tehran would verifiably cross the nuclear threshold – a moment not
likely to be delayed by any ad hoc Trump-era attempts at dissuasion – Israel should already have configured its optimal allocation of nuclear assets, and the extent to which this particular allocation should now be disclosed.
When it is time for Israel to selectively ease its nuclear ambiguity, a fully recognizable second-strike nuclear force should be revealed. Any such
robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied, and dispersed – would necessarily be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major
enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decisionmakers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned
aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.
This would not be the time for Israel to proceed in any such matters sotto voce.
To protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel has no logical alternative to developing a properly pragmatic conventional
preemption option. Operationally, especially at this already very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of any success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, it is also noteworthy that “irrational” is not the same as “crazy,” or “mad.”
To wit, even an irrational Iranian leadership could still have certain distinct preference orderings that are both consistent and transitive. Even an irrational leadership could be subject to threats of deterrence that credibly threaten certain deeply held religious as well as public values. The difficulty for Israel will be to ascertain the precise nature of these core enemy values. Should it ever be determined that an Iranian or other enemy nuclear leadership were genuinely “crazy” or “mad,” that is, without any decipherable or predictable ordering of valued preferences, more-usual deterrence bets could have to give way to residual forms of preemption.
In such complex circumstances, what could Israel expect from President Trump?
In principle, at least, an Israeli nuclear preemption remains conceivable. Nonetheless, it could realistically be considered only if Israel’s pertinent enemy or enemies has acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish state; (2) this enemy state or states has made it eminently clear that fully genocidal intentions parallel their capabilities; (3) this state or states was/were reliably believed ready to commence a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that residual non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the particular levels of damage-imitation still needed to ensure its most basic national survival.
Naturally, all such vital determinations and calculations are strategic, not jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, however, especially in view of Tehran’s expressly genocidal threats against Israel,17 a non-nuclear preemption option could represent a permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense. Still, this purely legal judgment should be kept entirely separate from any parallel or coincident
assessments of operational success.
For now, at least, these assessments point overwhelmingly toward the avoidance of any conceivably remaining preemption option.
In the ancient world, Greek and Macedonian soldiers were constantly reminded that war was a matter of “mind over mind,” not merely of “mind
over matter.”18 Today, going forward, Israel must also be reminded that preparing for survival in the increasingly anarchic global “state of nature”
is a preeminently intellectual task.19 A likely but regrettable corollary of this worthy dictum is that US foreign policy in the Trump Era might be
increasingly devoid of any serious or well-founded intellectual content. Taken together, this means, inter alia, a more or less historically unique
imperative for Israel to fashion its strategic nuclear policies apart from any traditional pledges of reliable American support.
When the ancient Athenian leader, Pericles, delivered his first Funeral Speech, at the start of the Peloponnesian War, he wisely cautioned: “What I
fear more than the strategies of our enemies is our own mistakes.”20 Looking ahead, in Jerusalem, this warning suggests, urgently, not to place any undue confidence in the current US administration. While it can be expected that Trump will discourage any “Cold War II,” the particular reasons behind this seemingly benign attitude (now under special investigation in the US) are profoundly worrisome. In Jerusalem, more specifically, this could even mean superpower collaboration in disregard of vital Israeli security interests, as was about to happen in the autumn of 1977 when the Carter administration sought to orchestrate a US-Soviet “peace plan” that ran counter to Israel’s (and Egypt’s) national interest.
Should such a scenario recur, Israel’s security will become more tenuous. As with President Carter (and Obama for that matter), it is not from Trump
that Israel should expect the gainfully stabilizing “wise counsel” prescribed in Proverbs. Rather, such indispensable guidance must stem from the
intellectual obligation to continuously assess the region’s overall “correlation of forces,” a challenging imperative that includes meticulous and comparative examination of enemy leaders rationality and derivatively needed distinctions between deliberate and inadvertent war. Moreover, an inadvertent war, whether conventional or nuclear (or both), would need to be further subdivided according to war by accident or war by miscalculation.
Without proper attention to this core imperative, Israel is apt to insufficiently systematize its national defense planning, a strategic dereliction that could occasion existential costs.
Two further recommendations for maximizing national strength and security arise. First, IDF assessments must continuously consider the changing organization of enemy state units, their training standards, morale, reconnaissance capabilities, battle experience, adaptability to the next battlefield, and cumulative capacities for cyber war. Although these assessments are not difficult to make on an individual or piecemeal basis, Israeli planners will soon need to more regularly conceptualize them together, in their entirety. Moreover, such an integrative re-conceptualization will have to factor in certain changing expectations of US presidential support.
Second, IDF assessments must consider the capabilities and intentions of Israel’s sub-state adversaries – that is, the entire configuration of anti-Israel
terror groups. These groups must be considered “synergistically,” in their most holistic expressions, and specifically, as they interrelate with one another visà-vis Israel. These terror groups will also need to be examined in terms of their interactive relationships with certain states, an examination involving an IDF search for dominant synergies between hybrid (state and non-state) enemies.
In all such examinations, Jerusalem will have to ensure that all of its sub-state and hybrid adversaries are also seen as enemies by the US president.
Looking ahead, Israel’s most conspicuous existential challenge will likely come from Iran. Should nuclear weapons be ever introduced into
the Iranian-Israeli equation, a nuclear war, at one level or another, may well ensue so long as (a) Tehran’s first strikes will not destroy Israel’s
second-strike nuclear capability; (b) Iranian retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption will not destroy Israel’s nuclear counterretaliatory capability; (c) Israel’s preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons will not destroy enemy state second-strike capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliations for Iranian conventional first strikes will not destroy Tehran’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capacity.
This means that in order to fulfill its most basic national security obligations, Israel must immediately take appropriate steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b), and the reciprocal unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
This should bring Israeli planners back to considerations of preemption or anticipatory self-defense. This customary right of international jurisprudence has been widely and authoritatively supported before the nuclear age – when the imperatives of preemption were arguably less compelling. The eighteenth century eminent Swiss jurisprudent Emmerich de Vattel argued that “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.”
As noted earlier, an Israeli nuclear preemption against Iran might be possible under certain circumstances, though for the foreseeable future this ominous scenario is highly implausible. This means that Israel must do everything possible to minimize any eventuality where such an extreme preemption could conceivably make sense, and to blunt any sub-nuclear Iranian aggressions in the region. This could include further Israeli bombardments of military facilities linked to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program.
In essence, as the Damascus regime and Hezbollah are surrogates of Tehran, allowing further Syrian chemical weapons development would
effectively enhance Iran’s strategic position vis-à-vis Israel. Moreover, Israel’s security obligations here stem from the de facto abandonment
by Washington of its own coincident obligations, dating back to the Obama administration. Needless to say, at least in a de jure sense, Moscow has been equally delinquent as a “great power” guarantor of regional wellbeing and security. It should be recalled that traditionally, great powers have been accorded disproportionate responsibility for securing world peace and security in the anarchic international system. Jurisprudentially, this state of affairs dates back to the 1648 Westphalian peace treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War.
Accordingly, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence, said that the early September 2017 raid against the Syrian scientific research center was intended to send three messages: “That Israel won’t allow for empowerment and production of strategic arms. Israel intends to enforce its red lines despite the fact that the great powers are ignoring them. And that the presence of Russian air defense does not prevent airstrikes attributed to Israel.”
These three messages represent more-or-less unambiguous (though possibly unintended) indictments of President Trump’s policy toward Israel. Although the second message is the most straightforward in this regard, the third message is also an indirect acknowledgment of diminishing American power and influence in the region. A determined self-reliance has always been absolutely integral to Israel’s national security posture, but this determination has now become more self-evident and overriding than ever before. It follows, inter alia, that Jerusalem must do whatever is needed to preserve its remaining “strategic depth,” and to maintain its credible deterrence in both conventional and nuclear forms.
From time to time, it may also mean that Israel should not only continuously strengthen its intersecting missile defenses but also prepare with exceptional creativity and imagination for all possible future wars that might have to be fought with less support from the United States.
To the extent that any such recollection would represent an instance of national daring, Jerusalem’s decision-makers might also remember the
germane insight of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: “There are times when the utmost daring is the height of wisdom.”
Such daring is part of the Biblical “wise counsel” recommended in Proverbs.
Published in “THE BEGIN-SADAT CENTER FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES” BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY
Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 144
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear