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Strategy, Plague and War: Israel’s Complex Nuclear Future

Trump administration diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa has always been a net-negative for Israel. Israelis gratitude is shortsighted and misplaced. Negotiated pacts with second-tier designed only for the personal benefit of an unworthy American president. 

 Prof. Louis René Beres
 “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”-T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Despite the noise and aggressive self-promotion, Trump administration diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa has always been a net-negative for Israel. While Israelis have generally been grateful to the Trump White House for providing America’s “good offices” with Bahrain, UAE and Sudan, this gratitude is shortsighted and misplaced. In essence, negotiated pacts with these second-tier adversaries were designed only for the personal benefit of an unworthy American president.

At best, for Israel, these public-relations focused pacts will provide a small number of low-level security advantages and a larger number of high-level security costs.

For Israel, even meaningfully improved relations with these states will likely do nothing to reduce the probability of major or minor wars in the region. More significantly, such alleged “improvements are apt to revive the portent of accelerating Palestinian terrorism. This enlarged prospect of insurgent Arab offensives, stemming from the new Trump-negotiated impediments to Palestinian statehood, could sometime involve weapons of mass destruction and/or attacks on Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona.  Moreover, these sub-state aggressions against Israel could be undertaken singly, or together with various state allies.

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By definition, in these latter cases of adversarial collaboration, the threat to Israel would derive from “hybrid” foes.

For Israel, these complex issues all call for disciplined intellectual analysis, not casually contrived political responses. None of the so-called “enemy states” now in presumably improved relations with Israel had ever presented any recognizable or decipherable threat. The best that one can say in defense of this starkly deceptive Trump-mediated effort is that after all agreement details had been formally completed, Israel’s security outlook came to resemble (in one respect) United States security vis-à-vis Grenada after 1983.

In that year, Ronald Reagan executed an American invasion of a tiny Caribbean nation. “Reassuringly,” since that 4-day operation, “Urgent Fury” has proven its enduring security value to the United States. After all, since “Urgent Fury” (though expressly condemned by the United Nations as a violation of international law), the United States has never once been attacked by Grenada.

Is there something wrong with this “logic?”

Ought we really to be grateful for US President Reagan’s strategic foresight?

Or are we really speaking of strategic self-parody?

Stated succinctly, once treated with evident seriousness, a confirmation of US decisional success in this earlier operation would appear silly at best. What else can one say about having blunted a threat that could never have existed?

All this is by way of underscoring an historical reference point. For the future, Israel will have to deal with more credible and consequential strategic threats than the essentially fictive ones enumerated by America’s Trump diplomacy with minor Sunni states. In this connection, nuclear strategy and nuclear deterrence could figure importantly.

Explained with greater specificity, Israel’s pertinent decision-makers will soon have to make certain core decisions about continuing with its longstanding posture of “deliberate ambiguity.”

This strategic posture, aka the “bomb in the basement,” will require vital and nuanced modifications in the year ahead. To best meet this inherently complex requirement – a prerequisite now made vastly more problematic by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic – Israeli defense and security planners will have to fashion their continuously evolving strategies with unprecedented intellectual refinement and with more explicit reference to three specific types of adversary: (1) state; (2) non-state; and (3) “hybrid.”

Most important, especially as US President Donald J. Trump’s disjointed policies could further destabilize world politics and tangibly accelerate Iranian nuclearization, IDF theorists will need to advance beyond their traditional emphases on technological innovation and remediation.

There is more. Recent Israeli successes with advanced ballistic missile defense are impressive and significant; still, they will need to be augmented by more incrementally credible strategies of nuclear deterrence. Aside from various pertinent particulars, these strategies, while in ongoing development, should be fashioned as conspicuously seamless and calibrated military postures.

Among other expectations, this requirement will call for factoring in foreseeable and ever-growing effects of a worldwide biological enemy (Covid-19), including well-informed estimations of adversarial capabilities and intentions.

All this will prove uncannily complex. The conceptual/analytic task now being placed before Israel’s military and national security planners is multi-faceted, intersectional, and daunting.  It remains a task that is potentially indispensable.     What follows seeks to clarify what should soon be expected of that country’s most capable thinkers and defense policy planners. This is not a task that can benefit from the narrowly manipulative “insights” of a self-serving American president or his Israeli surrogates. For Israel, this is a moment for imaginative thinking, not for governance by cliché.

Multivariate Theory and National Survival

Israel is not America. Nonetheless, it remains an “undisclosed” nuclear power, and must struggle with many of the same issues that now confront the United States. Though allocations of nuclear authority in Jerusalem are just as “opaque” as in Washington (possibly even more so), enough is known to hypothesize about certain expanding risks of a nuclear war. Indeed, because Israel remains a vital and substantial ally of the United States in the Middle East, there are foreseeable circumstances wherein certain nuclear risks common to the two countries could be overlapping or synergistic.

Whenever the linkages would constitute an authentic synergy, the cumulative harms would be greater than their calculable sum.

Understanding such circumstances – and using this understanding to enhance relevant security policies in Israel – presents a formidable intellectual task. This will not be a task for the analytically faint hearted. Like its much larger American ally, Israel must increasingly depend upon profoundly complex levels of strategic calculation – extraordinary levels of the sort that were earlier required during World War II of the Manhattan Project.

On its face, that is a very presumptuous claim. The comparison is not meant to suggest anything about reinforcing or changing Tel Aviv’s particular policy requirements or expectations, but only to clarify just how staggering the small country’s security task must become.

There is more. Israel’s strategic planners will have a set of very complex variables and relationships to consider. These are the many-sided factors that stem from an ongoing and ubiquitous microbial assault. The obvious reference here is the proliferating worldwide plague that is impacting friends and foes alike.

What happens when the proliferation of disease epidemic coincides with the proliferation of nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons? What if these weapons include biological weapons? The ironies are apparent, and also formidable.

What sorts of measurement or assessment can bring usable clarity to such unique challenges? In epistemological or philosophy of science terminology, the situation now being faced by the United States and Israel is sui generis. How, then, should this unprecedented situation be controlled?

Above all, the core challenge to Israel concerns viable long-term deterrence of multiple regional adversaries. Now faced with an expanding disease pandemic superimposed upon all of the usual or “normal” strategic issues, Israel’s response will require herculean combinations of refined analysis and creative intuition. This task has already become so grievously complex and many-sided that nothing less than unprecedented applications of human intellectual effort can rise adequately to the challenge.

Reciprocally, however, there can be no compelling assurances that even such rarefied applications can ever succeed.

               Prima facie, the myriad difficulties of rising to this existential challenge represent a formidable barrier to success and long-term survival. In essence, there exists grave danger that these difficulties could occasion not any purposefully enhanced national commitment or “will,”  but rather incremental resignation or irremediable despair. It follows that before any necessary strategic policy modifications can be launched by Israeli thinkers and planners, those responsible will, like Lady Macbeth, first have to “screw up their courage to the sticking place.”

But how to begin? For exactly half a century, I have been thinking and writing about Israel’s nuclear strategy. At least to some calculable extent, this has been an incomprehensible and foolhardy academic focus. Israel, after all, has never meaningfully acknowledged its possession of nuclear weapons, let alone identified any corresponding national nuclear infrastructures, strategies or tactics.

None at all.

So, what exactly has actually been left to analyze?

What, precisely, can be examined and usefully reconstituted right now, when virtually everything is in bewildering flux?

There are coherent answers, but they cannot be offered ex nihilo, that is, from within an empirical or conceptual vacuum.

In all world politics, but especially in the Middle East, the most enduring truth of what is taking place is always inconspicuous, what is not said. During the past several years, it has been relatively easy to extrapolate from various multiple and intersecting open sources that Israel’s nuclear capacity (in its broadest possible outline) represents just such an “enduring truth,” and that the country’s physical survival is closely intertwined with its “deliberately ambiguous” defense posture. Now, however, looking ahead, a core responsibility for both planners and politicians in Israel should be to more explicitly utilize/optimize their country’s always-evolving nuclear strategy, and to tackle this bold challenge against an ever-changing backdrop of both state and sub-state adversaries.

There will be more substance to consider. The national security task will require various informed assessments not only of more-or-less decipherable prospects, but also of certain foreseeable “hybrid” enemies (e.g., Iran-Hezbollah; Iran-Hamas). In turn, these hybrids will represent substantially more complex foes; that is, adversaries comprised (in varying conceivable configurations) of both state and sub-state elements.

Inevitably, the suitability of Israel’s relevant national nuclear planning will vary, at least in part, according to the particular “mix” involved. To this point, of course, little published analysis has addressed the effective use of Israeli nuclear deterrence against sub-state and/or “hybridized” adversaries. Among other things, this once-reasonable inattention will have to be appropriately changed and properly updated.


Inter alia, Israel will require more explicit considerations of nuclear deterrence strategies directed against conventional or non-nuclear enemies. First and foremost, these demanding considerations will represent intellectual obligations; that is, analytic responsibilities that can be met only by more markedly purposeful and science-based theorizing,  never by the cleverly shallow rhetorical flourishes of market-centered national politicians.In the United States, unmistakably, we are still witnessing the catastrophic security consequences of a presidential leadership that was based entirely upon raw “intuition” or visceral “gut feeling.”

Left to its own anti-science devices, these consequences, which now include steadily cascading Covid-19 death counts, could alter the fabric of American national survival.

Whether in Israel or the United States, national security challenges can never be dealt with capably under the manipulative guidance of commerce-centered impresarios. To wit, such inept American guidance did not reduce the North Korean nuclear threat to the United States when US President Donald Trump declared after the Singapore Summit that he and his counterpart in Pyongyang had “fallen in love.”

There was not a scintilla of threat reduction; not a calculable bit.

Since that substantively unplanned and intentionally unprepared-for summit, North Korea has accelerated and expanded its military nuclear programs. Ironically, Donald Trump responded by telling the American people that (based upon his “intuition” and “gut feelings”) all is actually improving.

Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”

There is more. By definition, the imperative exploration of Israel’s nuclear strategy cannot be undertaken with a view to ascertaining any precise event probabilities. In science and mathematics, true statements of probability must always be drawn from the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. But very clearly, in the bewildering matters at hand, there has never been an authentic nuclear war.

It follows that Israeli scholars and political leaders should remain aptly modest about offering any specific nuclear conflict predictions. Going back to ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, especially Aristotle (both Poetics and Politics), this will not be a suitable time for any Israeli displays of hubris or “chutzpah.” Lest they forget, such misplaced displays led directly to the near-catastrophe of the 1973 Yom Kippur War or mechdal.

For Israel, perhaps more than for any other imperiled state in world politics, it is vital not to prepare “retrospectively” for the dynamics and weapon-systems of a previous war. Though, at least for the moment, Israel faces no regional nuclear adversaries, this relatively favorable condition will not last indefinitely. When it does finally come to an end – such an eventual or incremental cessation is pretty much inevitable over time, especially as US President Trump’s policies can only hasten Iranian nuclearization and certain reciprocal Sunni Arab nuclear reactions – Jerusalem/Tel Aviv should be prepared to conceptualize a more future-oriented and systematic program of national strategic response.

Whether or not Israel is adequately prepared for such a difficult task will depend, at least in part, on whether adversarial nuclear capacities become evident in plausibly tolerable increments, or (instead) in variously tangible acts (witting or unwitting) of verifiable enemy disclosure. If the latter, the worst case for Israel would involve actual enemy resorts to nuclear conflict.

What then? In any law-based world order, it’s a question that should never have to be asked.


To best prepare for any impending nuclear adversary, whether Shiite Iran or a Sunni Arab enemy (Pakistan is already a Sunni non-Arab nuclear power and in-principle adversary), or both, Israel/IMOD must remain continuously analytic and theory-focused. This means, among other things, factoring into virtually every coherent nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers, and (b) the expected intentionality of these decision-makers during any conceivable crisis.

Unsurprisingly, there is also something else of prospectively grave significance. This factor is the ongoing Corona virus pandemic, a plague so corrosive, persistent and consequential that it could directly impact an adversarial state’s decisional rationality and policy intentions. More exactly, depending upon the actual impact of disease on the relevant enemy’s most senior decision-makers, such a foe could become more or less likely to initiate variable (minor or major) levels of conflict.

Israel’s own senior decision-makers, already anticipating such changeable enemy orientations to war, could experience a heightened inclination to preempt.  In law, any such defensive first-strikes could be known formally as “anticipatory self-defense.” It remains high time for Israeli strategists to be self-consciously scientific in the sense of producing more aptly comprehensive theoretic assessments. These are now the only appraisals that can capably explore a needed variety of “soft” human factors. Until now, Israel’s defense establishment has been very capably scientific, but primarily in the operational sense of maintaining precise mathematical attention to assorted weapon systems and infrastructures.

Just as importantly, IDF/MOD will now need to operationalize some less tangible but still markedly scientific orientations to any prospective nuclear conflict.

Models of Strategic Decision-Making for Israel

An appropriate example here would be the creation of multiple decisional “templates” to allow consideration of not-easily measurable explanatory factors. Even more precisely, if a basically dichotomous or two-part distinction could sometime be assumed concerning enemy rationality and intentionality, four logically possible categories or scenarios would result. These discrete narrative templates could then lucidly inform Israel’s long-term nuclear security policies and posture.

Each template’s examination would take into account, to whatever extent analytically possible, likely Covid-19 impacts on enemy decision-makers.

To proceed, IDF planners ought to consider the following more-or-less believable narratives, a determined consideration that could significantly enhance already-disciplined orientations to the country’s national defense:

(1) Rational/Intentional

Both Israeli and enemy leaders are presumptively rational (i.e., each set of leaders values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences), and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of fully deliberate decision choices by one or both of the relevant decision-makers;

(2) Rational/Unintentional

Both sets of leaders are presumptively rational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of certain unintended decision choices made by one or both of them;

(3) Irrational/Intentional

Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of still fully deliberate decisional choices made by one or both; and

(4) Irrational/Unintentional

Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between these adversaries would be the necessary outcome of unintended decisions made by one or both of them.

In all such complex strategic matters (Clausewitz reminds us, in On War, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is still very difficult.”), nothing could prove more practical than good theory. Always, such duly general and comprehensive policy explanations could help guide Jerusalem beyond otherwise vague, ad hoc or simply “seat-of-the-pants” appraisals of adversarial nuclear conflict possibilities.

By definition, any future nuclear crisis between Israel and designable enemy states would be unique or sui generis. This means, among other things, that Israel’s Prime Minister and his principal national security advisors ought never become overly-confident about predicting specific nuclear crisis outcomes or their own expertise in being able to successfully manage such unprecedented crises. As hinted at earlier, such expertise could be affected by any still-ongoing disease pandemic. Israel’s own decision-makers, like all pertinent enemy decision-makers, would be meaningfully vulnerable to virulent forms of biological “insult.”

Another key point emerges. There are no real experts in nuclear conflict situations. This conclusion includes a now-sitting American president who had earlier placed far-reaching and baseless faith in North Korea’s Kim Jung Un (“We fell in love”), and who still reveals no serious intellectual understanding of US nuclear deterrence obligations.

None at all.

Further Relevant Strategic Distinctions

Other thoughts dawn. Israeli strategic analysts must continuously upgrade any proposed nuclear investigations by identifying the basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and between unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The tangible risks resulting from these different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably, in part because of certain hard-to-quantify or calculate “pandemic variables.” Those Israeli analysts who would remain too exclusively focused upon any deliberate nuclear war scenario could sometime too casually underestimate a more authentically serious and even overriding enemy threat.

In principle, at least, any such underestimations could produce lethal or prospectively existential outcomes for Israel. To make the avoidance of these underestimations sufficiently problematic, nuclear war risks in the Middle East could be created or enhanced via various “spillover effects” from nuclear conflict situations in other regions. Presently, regarding Israel, the most credible “ignition points” for any such creation would be India-Pakistan escalations,  and/or North Korean aggression. It goes without saying that such additionally portentous escalations and/or aggressions could themselves be affected by various Covid-19 considerations

While any North Korea-Middle East nuclear intersections may at first appear far-fetched, literally any crossing of the nuclear threshold on this planet could impact nuclear use in other far-flung places.

This expectation does not take into account historic ties between destabilizing North Korean nuclear technologies and the traditional Arab  state enemies of Israel. The most obvious case in point is Syria, and Israel’s remediating preemption (Operation Orchard) undertaken back in September 2007.

There is more. Israel could sometime need to respond to expectedly bewildering conditions generated by any US war with Iran. This is the case even if Iran were itself to remain entirely non-nuclear.  Again, IMOD and the Prime Minister will need to anticipate such conditions in suitably systematic, scientific and dialectical fashion.

World Politics as System

Always, international relations represent a system. What happens in any one component of this system can impact what happens in another. Sometimes, the cumulative impact of regional or global interactions can also be “synergistic.” In these very dense circumstances, by definition, the calculable “whole” of any relevant interactions will prove to be greater than the simple sum of the constituent “parts.”

               Here, too, the presence of pandemic factors could represent a relevant and significant “force multiplier.”

In thinking about nuclear strategy, Israeli planners must calculate holistically, broadly considering the world as a multi-actor totality, one where consequential outcomes will have to be assessed in their most conceivably complex intersections. Also important here will be specific orientations to states, sovereignty and state meanings. In some cases, these diverse orientations could prove genuinely determinative.

Noteworthy here is a seemingly subtle but still meaningful difference between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could take place various recognizable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. The policy-related differences here would not be insignificant or inconsequential.

Most critical, in clarifying this connection, would be potentially serious errors in calculation, whether committed by one or both (or several) sides. The most evident example of any such grievous mistakes would concern such plausible misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity as might emerge during the course of a particular crisis escalation. Such tangible misjudgments would most likely stem from a predictably mutual search for strategic advantage during any ongoing competition in nuclear risk-taking.

In orthodox military parlance, this would mean during a determinable multi-party search for “escalation dominance.” Such a search could be affected by literally any Covid-19 triggered conditions of chaos. To achieve a proper or (better still) optimal start in this sort of required theorizing, Israeli analysts would first need to pinpoint and conceptualize the vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear warinadvertent nuclear war, and accidental nuclear war.

Subsequently, undertaking various related investigations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s decision-making structure would become necessary. One potential source of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” To this point, a posturing Israeli prime minister who had too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could unwittingly spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

At this time, US President Donald J. Trump has toyed vis-à-vis North Korea with intermittent displays of  “pretended irrationality,” but to no apparent avail. In part, this evident lack of success may be due to the president’s earlier public declarations concerning certain alleged benefits of feigned irrationality. In other words, having previously announced his own infatuation with the promise of pretended irrationality, there is too little good reason for Pyongyang to take any such recent threat as aptly credible.

There is more. An Israeli leadership that had begun to take seriously an enemy leader’s self-declared unpredictability could sometimes be frightened into striking first itself. In this diametrically opposite or reciprocal case, Jerusalem would become the preempting party that could then claim (rightly or wrongly) legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. Under authoritative international law, as we have already noted, a permissible preemption could possibly be taken as a proper expression of “anticipatory self-defense.”

Also worth considering amid any such chess-like strategic and legal dialectics is that the first scenario could sometimes end not with an enemy preemption, but with Israeli decision-makers deciding to “preempt the preemption.” Here, Israel, sensing the too-great “success” of its own pretended irrationality, might then “foresee” an enemy’s resultant insecurity.

They might then decide (correctly or incorrectly) to strike first before they are struck first themselves.”

The very dense strategic dialectic in such cases would be multi-factorial and complicated, perhaps even bewildering.

One final point warrants a concluding emphasis. A future Israeli posture of feigned or pretended irrationality need not be inherently misconceived or inconceivable. Years ago, in precisely such a conceptual regard, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan declared: “Israel must be seen (by its enemies) as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”

Looking ahead, such seemingly “out-of-the-box” Israeli security postures are uncertain and untested, but they are not necessarily mistaken or beyond any serious consideration. The specific credibility of such potential military postures could be enhanced by considering more conspicuous characterizations of a last-resort “Samson Option.”  The key point of any such characterizations would not be to prepare for some actual “final battle” (an outcome that would be in no single country’s overall best interests), but rather to better convince an existential adversary of Israel’s willingness to take extraordinary risks in order to ensure its own survival.

While Israel has yet to exploit this particular modality of strategic thinking, Russia made precisely such a calculation with its Burevestnik missile –  a self-declared “vengeance nuclear weapon.” Moscow is not hoping to employ such a missile as part of any operational policy, but instead to signal the United States that it is prepared to “go to the mat” with the Americans, even in starkly unpredictable nuclear terms. We may assume that the Russian “point” here is not to “fight a nuclear war,” but instead to successfully influence the choices that its American rival will most expectedly make.

Inevitably, this means to maximize Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Going forward, a major focus of changing Israel’s nuclear strategy will have to be the country’s longstanding posture of deliberate ambiguity or “bomb in the basement.”  The Prime Minister surely understands that adequate nuclear deterrence of increasingly formidable enemies could soon require lessrather than more Israeli nuclear secrecy. Accordingly, what will soon need to be determined by IDF planners will be the operational extent and subtlety with which Israel should communicate assorted core elements of its nuclear posture; that is, its corollary intentions and capabilities pertinent to selected enemy states.

To protect itself against any enemy strikes that could carry intolerable costs, IDF defense planners will need to prepare to exploit absolutely every relevant aspect and function of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter value”), but also upon the extent to which this key choice is made known in advance to enemy states and (at least sometimes, in hybridized scenarios) to these foes’ sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be suitably deterred from launching first strike aggressions against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli preemptions, it may not be enough for them merely to know that Israel has the bomb.

In some cases, the credibility of an Israeli nuclear threat could vary inversely with its presumed destructiveness.

In Nuclear Crisis Mode: Complexity and Calculation

               In extremis atomicum, these enemies will also need to believe that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacksand that they are pointed menacingly at appropriately high-value targets. The key message here is obvious and straightforward. Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces.  Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks.

From the standpoint of successful Israeli nuclear deterrence, IDF planners must generally proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is always as important as perceived capability. In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces should remain fully oriented to deterrence, and never toward any actual nuclear war fighting. Already, with this in mind, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv has likely taken appropriate steps to reject tactical or relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons, and, as corollary, any corresponding plans for counter-force targeting.

For Israel, without any conceivable exception, nuclear weapons can make sense only for deterrence ex-ante, not revenge ex-post.

There are various attendant problems of nuclear proliferation among enemy states. New nuclear powers could implement protective measures that would pose additional hazards to Israel. Designed to guard against preemption, either by Israel or by other regional enemies, such measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with measured pre-delegations of launch authority.

This means, most plainly, that Israel could become increasingly endangered by steps taken by its newly-nuclear enemies to prevent an eleventh-hour preemption. Optimally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own armaments and populations. Still, if these steps were somehow to become a fait accompli, Jerusalem might then calculate, and quite correctly, that a preemptive strike would be both legal and operationally cost-effective.

Here, the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes  –  strikes likely occasioned by the failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

These are all complicated matters. They can never be solved or even understood by any country’s narrowly political planners or decision-makers.

There is also the related matter of conventional deterrence.  In some circumstances, enemy states contemplating a conventional attack upon Israel might be dissuaded only by the threat of strong conventional retaliation. Inasmuch as a conventional war could sometimes escalate into an unconventional war, Israel’s conventional deterrent could prove valuable in offering protection against chemical/biological/nuclear war as well as against conventional war.

A persuasive conventional deterrent is a sine qua non of Israel’s security. This is the case irrespective of the persuasiveness of Jerusalem’s nuclear deterrent, and/or the availability of reasonable preemption options. Reciprocally, Israel’s conventional and nuclear deterrents are interrelated, even intertwined.  For the foreseeable future, any enemy states that would launch an exclusively conventional attack upon Israel would almost surely have to maintain multiple unconventional weapons capabilities in reserve.

Even if Israel could rely upon conventional deterrence as its “first line” of protection, that line would need to be augmented by Israeli nuclear deterrence in order to prevent intra-war escalations initiated by enemy actors.

Looking ahead, Israel must prepare to rely upon a distinctly multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. This critical doctrine will need to be less ambiguous and more determinedly “synergistic.” Its core focus should embrace prospectively rational and non-rational enemies, and include both national and sub-national foes.

Again, these intersecting requirements are not for consideration by narrowly political decision-makers or by the intellectually faint-hearted.

They are offered herein for strategic consideration and analytic refinement.

Over time, any such prudential reliance should prove agreeably “cost-effective.” Whether directed at nuclear or non-nuclear adversaries (or both), Israel’s nuclear strategy will play an increasingly important role in that country’s national security planning. At some point, Israel and Iran –  perhaps resembling the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War – could find themselves like “two scorpions in a bottle”  or rather enclosed like two “scorpions” amid three or four others.

For good reason, it’s not a pretty metaphor.

New Pacts, Old and New Problems

What happens then? Will Israel be ready? A positive answer is possible only if the task is viewed in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv as a preeminently intellectual one, a struggle not just about comparative ordnance or competitive “orders of battle,” but comprehensively about “mind over mind.” In these perplexing times, all relevant matters of mind will have to include various considerations of biology/pathology as well as the more usual military ones.

Fortunately, Israel has always been in recognizably prominent possession of what is most durably important. This largely overlooked factor is intellectual power.  Going forward with its imperative strategic tasks, Israel’s senior planners and prime minister may now have to more fully appreciate the primacy of such an antecedent or utterly primary power.

This would mean, inter alia, looking far beyond the usual focus on high-technology military solutions, including various unprecedented factors concerning Covid19/virulent disease pandemic.

Among other things, these biological variables could impact actual processes of crisis decision-making in Jerusalem and/or in certain enemy capitals, more-or-less simultaneous impacts with still-unknown force-multiplying effects. These effects, at some point, could also become literally synergistic.

At that worrisome stage, the “whole” injurious impact of the pandemic on pertinent Israeli decision-making would have become greater than the simple sum of all its relevant “parts.” Immediately, therefore, because it would be impossible to anticipate in any detail such a profound impact in all or even most of its plausible disease-based consequences, the optimal course for Israel must be to hew in general to strategic postures recognizably averse to excessive threat-making or excessive risk-taking. In these expansively uncertain times, Israel’s defense and security decision-makers should consider maximizing their inclinations to more cooperative or collaborative interactions with particular adversarial counterparts.

As long as the country maintains its “ace in the whole” nuclear strategy, which should be for a very long time, Israel must keep up its efforts to ensure a refined and uniformly credible national nuclear strategy. This strategy should continue to emphasize deterrence ex-ante, not revenge ex-post. Although recent Israeli pacts with Bahrain, UAE, and Sudan may at first seem to have been net-gainful, a more careful strategic assessment (already imperative) should conclude otherwise. Among other things, over time, Jerusalem will face undiminished or enlarged strategic threats from Iran and assorted terrorist actors, and potentially new strategic threats from certain Sunni Arab states newly strengthened by ill-considered Trump diplomacy. With this complex nuclear future in mind, Jerusalem should remain focused on the critical intellectual antecedents of national security planning, and not be distracted by any chimerical promises or assurances from Washington.

The new US-brokered pacts of recognition and reconciliation with Barhrain, UAE and Sudan may at first sound like commendable achievements, but their cumulative net benefits are calculably very small, and their prospective net costs are markedly considerable. Over time, these widely-unseen costs could become staggering, if not irremediable. In the worst case, the actual price of having trusted complex national security decision-making to contrived political solutions could even include a regional “waste land.”

Unlike the poet’s more abstract conceptualization, this real-world declension could display fear not merely in “dust,” but also in the combined perils of virulent pathogens and radioactive ash. This is not a combination best prevented by public officials drawn from a one-dimensional background in politics, industry or commerce. Successful prevention calls for strategic thinkers who are well-schooled in such challenging dialectics, thinkers of uncommon erudition and unparalleled intellectual integrity.

For Israel, the stakes are simply too high to settle for anything less.

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

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy



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