Prof. Louis René Beres
Though the Trump-brokered Abraham Agreements with selected Sunni Arab states might first appear sensible, there is actually little here to celebrate. In essence, these Agreements exhibit little more than just another self-serving contrivance of America’s former president. At best, these Agreements codify variously harmonious diplomatic relations between states that were never genuine adversaries. At worst, they further compromise Israel’s existential safety vis-à-vis Iran, a security diminution already exacerbated by Donald Trump’s May 8, 2018 withdrawal of the United States from JCPOA pact obligations.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.” The JCPOA did exhibit substantial shortcomings as a prospective corrective to Iranian nuclearization, but this did not mean that Israel or the United States would necessarily fare better after America’s unilateral abrogation. In these earlier Trump policies contra Iran, the president’s conspicuous illogic was “impeccable.” In aptly philosophical terms, such illogic was exactly what one ought to have expected from a president guided not by reason, but by “mass.”
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The “mass man,” says 20th century Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” Donald J. Trump was Ortega’s “mass man” par excellence. On matters of national and international security, he learned only “in his own flesh.”
For Israel, it is high time for candor. Not many thinking Israelis will sleep better by presuming that, “post-Abraham,” they are less subject to aggressions from Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan and/or the United Arab Emirates. What should authentically disturb their sleep, however, is the sorely realistic prospect of still-deteriorating Israeli relations with Iran.
As long as Israel’s Iranian adversary continues to nuclearize – a scenario that has not been rendered any less worrisome by the Abraham Accords – these Trump-fostered agreements must figure as a net-negative. These public-relations based Agreements have not only failed to reduce mutually belligerent sentiments between Jerusalem and Tehran, they have also had the effect of further marginalizing Iran. When the Shiite Islamic Republic feels more and more apprehensive about the new US-brokered alignments between a “composite” foe – a prospective “super-enemy” comprised of Israel and certain Sunni Arab states – it could more likely consider various strategies of preemption.
Always, the core struggle is intellectual. What sort of dialectical thinking can we expect on both sides? Among other things, the likelihood of any such destabilizing decision would depend upon Tehran’s simultaneous assessment of aggressive enemy intentions and Sunni enemy state nuclearization. In those circumstances wherein the “whole” result of any worrisome military intersection would appear greater than the sum of all “parts,” the pertinent relationship would seemingly be synergistic.
The attendant risks to Israel here would be additive to the previously-mentioned synergy obtaining between US JCOPOA withdrawal and US brokered Abraham Accords.
Understanding Analytic Background
Always, there must be a suitable analytic background for correctly understanding such Agreements and their multiple implications. Cicero’s epigraph to Emmerich de Vattel’s foundational work of international law, The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758), offers a good place to begin: “…there is nothing on earth more acceptable to the Supreme Deity who rules over this whole world than the councils and assemblages of men bound together by law, which are called States.”This classic observation remains significant for at least two compelling reasons: The statement (1) underscores critically primary connections between international law and natural law; and (2) overstates the civilizational benefits of a nation-centric world politics.
Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the people of earth have countenanced a geopolitical system based on competitive power politics, belligerent nationalism and endless conflict. This corrosive system of Realpolitik was formally transformed into authoritative law by this landmark treaty. When Realpolitik is joined with a world of proliferating nuclear weapons, the risks of remaining on a seventeenth-century course of international relations exceed all conceivable benefits.
For relevant political leaders, there is much to learn. The Westphalian peace which put an end to the Thirty Years’ War (the last of the major religious wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation) acknowledged a world system that lacked any loci of central governance. This unstable condition of structural anarchystill stands in marked contrast to any neatly sanitizing or falsely reassuring assumption of solidarity between states.
Such a “peremptory” expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption) was already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis(533 C.E.); in Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625);and most plainly of all, in Emmerich De Vattel, The Law of Nations, or The Principles of Natural Law (1758).
Vattel’s “first principle” of the Law of Nations is the mutual independence and dependence of sovereign states. Though “foreign nations have no right to interfere in the government of an independent state….” (II, sec. 57), these states are “bound mutually to promote the society of the human race…” and, correspondingly, “owe one another all the duties which the safety and welfare of that society require.” In brief, as Vattel clarifies in his Introduction: “What one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”
Paths to a Nuclear War in the Middle East Involving Israel
Before appropriately legal remedies can be identified and assessed, one key question needs to be asked: How, more-or-less exactly, might Israel ultimately find itself in some configuration or other of an actual nuclear war? What, with still greater exactitude, are the more-or-less identifiable circumstances under which Israel could sometime discover itself involved (whether wittingly or unwittingly) with belligerent nuclear weapons use? To meaningfully answer these complex questions, capable analysts must integrate the expressly strategic aspects of their necessary investigations with the jurisprudential.
There can be no credibly successful ways of managing the latter without also understanding and applying the former.
For the moment, all such concerns could appear extraneous, gratuitous or simply without useful foundation. Israel, after all, remains the only presumptive nuclear weapons state in the region. Nonetheless, certain still malleable order-of-battle considerations could change quickly and unexpectedly, perhaps even, from moment to moment. In the always unpredictable Middle East, this “fluidity” is most specifically plausible in regard to future aggressions from Iran.
Iran will not be easily deflected from its seemingly long-term nuclear ambitions. On the contrary, the implicit existential threat of the Abraham Accords will prod even more accelerated patterns of nuclearization. All things considered, Tehran’s confirmable membership in the Nuclear Club now appears more than likely within just the next several years. This “membership” is reasonable to expect following former US President Trump’s unilateral JCPOA withdrawal.
Israeli Nuclear Deterrence and Non-Nuclear War
Even in the absence of any actual Iranian nuclear adversary in the region, the Jewish State could still find itself having to rely upon nuclear deterrence against certain biological and/or massive conventional threats. Acknowledging such a prospectively existential reliance, the residual prospect of atomic weapons firings should never be ruled out prematurely or altogether. In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented toward successful deterrence; never to actual war fighting. Already, with this in mind, Jerusalem has likely taken certain suitable steps to reject tactical or relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons and any corresponding operational plans for counter-force targeting.
For Israel, always and without exception, nuclear weapons can make sense only for deterrence ex ante; not for revenge ex post.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, both nuclear deterrence and associated forms of nuclear strategy, including preemption, can possibly support the authoritative expectations of international law. In the end, the adequacy of international law in preventing a nuclear war in the Middle East will depend upon much more than formal treaties, customs and “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.” It will depend especially upon the success or failure of particular country strategies in the volatile region. If Israel’s nuclear strategy should successfully reduce the threat of nuclear war, either because of viable forms of nuclear deterrence or because of essential preemptive strikes, this strategy could then be considered as an authentic component of international law enforcement.
Relevant threat scenarios should remind Israel of an always overriding need for applicable nuclear theory based upon coherent thought. This core need would postulate a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that is recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes and is seemingly capable of penetrating an enemy state’s deployed active defenses. Inter alia, to best meet this imperative security expectation after the Abraham Accords and America’s JCPOA withdrawal, the IDF would be well-advised to continuously advance with its sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of the country’s nuclear deterrent force.
To satisfy the equally important and complex requirements of “penetration-capability,” Tel-Aviv will have to stay visibly well ahead of foreseeable enemy air defense refinements. All such recommendations, if duly followed, could convincingly enhance not only Israel’s national security, but, correspondingly, the more general prospects for nuclear war avoidance in the Middle East. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in his classical discussion of “friction” in On War, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”
Taking the Bomb out of the Basement
Sooner rather than later, Jerusalem will need to consider a partial and possibly sequenced end to its historic policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” By selectively beginning to remove the “bomb” from its metaphoric “basement,” Israel’s national strategic planners would be better positioned to enhance the credibility of their country’s vital nuclear deterrence posture and the safety of the region. Any enhancements of Israel’s deterrent would effectively enhance the wider objectives of pertinent international law.
In Israel’s strategic nuclear planning, would-be aggressors, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, must be systematically encouraged to believe that Jerusalem maintains the required willingness to launch measured nuclear forces in retaliation and that these nuclear forces are sufficiently invulnerable to any-contemplated first-strike attacks. Additionally, these enemies must be made to expect that Israel’s designated nuclear forces could reliably penetrate all their already-deployed ballistic-missile and related air defenses.
Though perhaps counter-intuitive, Israel and also the wider region could benefit from Jerusalem releasing certain broad outlines of the country’s evolving strategic configurations. Without a prior and well-fashioned strategic doctrine, no such release could make sufficiently persuasive deterrent sense. At the same time, a too-pointed release could be interpreted as a too-explicit rejection of NPT (Nonproliferation Treaty) objectives – a Treaty to which Israel is not a party (and is therefore not directly beholden by law), but which nonetheless is generally regarded as an authoritative regional nuclear “benchmark.”
Selectively released Israeli nuclear information could support the perceived utility and security of Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces. Once disclosed, it should center purposefully upon the targeting, hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing, and yield of national ordnance. Under certain conditions, the credibility of Israeli nuclear deterrence could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its relevant weapons.
Unsurprisingly, there will be many interrelated policy concerns, all with some measure or other of prospectively legal significance. One such concern underscores that Israel will need to prepare differently yet subtly for engagements with an expectedly rational nuclear adversary than for an expectedly irrational foe. In such variously nuanced and unprecedented circumstances, national decision-makers in Jerusalem would need to distinguish precisely and meaningfully between genuine enemy irrationality and feigned enemy irrationality.
How should they be reasonably expected to make such highly imprecise distinctions?
Judgments of Rationality and Irrationality
In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have taken on variously specific meanings. An actor (state or sub-state) is determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering. Apropos of the scientific limitations already discussed, ascertaining whether such an adversary (e.g., Iran) were rational or irrational could prove to be a distressingly inexact undertaking.
In actual practice, operationalizing these potentially indecipherable distinctions would present staggeringly complex intellectual challenges; they would need to take account, inter alia, of whether the scrutinized adversaries were (1) fully or partially sovereign states; (2) sub-national terrorist groups; or (3) “hybrid” enemies comprised of assorted state and sub-state foes. A subsidiary but still daunting task would be to ascertain the effective ratio of decision-making responsibilities among all hybridized foes.
But how should this multi-layered assessment be carried out?
In principle, at least, such a task might prove not just daunting, but literally impossible.
At a minimum, this would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted. To successfully preserve the nuclear “lid” in this volatile region, Joe Biden’s foreign policy will need to be rendered more coherent, predictable and law-oriented than was its predecessor. More precisely, the White House will need to better clarify its position on a Palestinian state, Iranian nuclearization and, reciprocally, on any prospective Sunni nuclear weapons preparations seemingly oriented toward deterring Shiite Iran.
This last point could mean closely monitoring and eventually supporting or opposing certain increasingly plausible nuclearizing steps undertaken by Saudi Arabia and/or Egypt.
Whatever calculable nuances will be encountered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (political leadership/IDF leadership), the only rational way for Israel to successfully meet these growing and overlapping challenges will be to stay well ahead of its adversaries through the inestimable powers of strategic erudition and qualitative scholarship. Already, in classical Greece and Macedonia, the linked arts of war and deterrence were being described by military planners as theoretic challenges of “mind over mind;” and not merely as crude ad hoc contests of “mind over matter.” For Israel and the wider Middle East, such ancient descriptions remain entirely valid today.
There is one further relevant observation concerning Israel’s nuclear strategy and American national security. Although analysts generally examine the foreseeable impact of US nuclear guidance upon Israel, it would be equally valid and important to consider the impact of Israel’s nuclear strategy upon US national security. In essence, though largely unrecognized, there is an ongoing and reciprocal connection between these two factors, a sort of continuous policy feedback-loop. Going forward, this “loop” should more routinely be examined as a mutual and dynamic relationship than as merely a static and one-directional connection.
One evident conclusion here must be that the suitability and durability of Israel’s nuclear strategy will impact not only the Middle East, legally as well as strategically, but also American security risks and benefits. To the extent that Israel’s nuclear strategic policies could have certain “spillover” effects for the United States, America would become the unintentional beneficiary of Israel’s own strategic scholarship and planning. It also follows that should Israel’s nuclear posture somehow fail to meet that country’s most urgent or existential security expectations, the derivative effect upon the United States would be correspondingly negative.
Simultaneously, this effect would concern appropriate international law.
America and New World Security Patterns
Virtually any Israeli scholarship focused on nuclear war avoidance will be in response to certain world security configurations shaped by the United States. In this connection, Jerusalem will need to pay special attention to the growing importance of “Cold War II,” an adversarial expansion between Washington and Moscow with more-or-less conspicuous manifestations and reverberations throughout the wider world. If, for example, geopolitical competition between the superpowers should become more tangibly war-oriented in Asia – most notably in regard to ongoing North Korean nuclearization – that could have determining effects upon Israel’s nuclear posture and a Middle Eastern nuclear war.
Earlier, North Korea had helped Syria build a nuclear reactor, the same facility that was later destroyed by Israel in its Operation Orchard, on September 6, 2007. Although, unlike earlier Operation Opera, this preemptive attack, in the Deir ez-Zor region, was presumptively a second expression of the so-called “Begin Doctrine.” It also illustrated, because of its express North Korea connection, a much wider globalthreat to Israel .
Deleterious effects would likely be most dramatic if there were to take place any genuine nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea, circumstances in which the nuclear war threshold had actually been crossed. Similar connections could obtain in the aftermath of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, and would depend largely upon specific and still-ascertainable Russian/American alignments with either Delhi or Islamabad. In both of these prospective conflict dyads – US-North Korea and India-Pakistan – any expression of nuclear belligerence, however indirect, could immediately and gravely impact Israel’s nuclear strategy and any resultant regional security.
For Israel, greater familiarity with certain jurisprudential principles could advance the nation’s legal as well as strategic obligations, most plainly those that William Blackstone had famously expressed in his Commentaries on the Law of England (Book 4 “Of Public Wrongs”): “Each state is expected, perpetually,” noted Blackstone, “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon the offenses against that universal law.”
Such ideas don’t just “pop up” in a theoretic vacuum. Blackstone is ultimately indebted to Cicero’s antecedent description of natural law in The Republic: “True law is right reason, harmonious with nature, diffused among all, constant, eternal; a law which calls to duty by its commands and restrains from evil by its prohibitions….”
“Just wars,” wrote Hugo Grotius, the unchallenged founder of modern international law, “arise from our love of the innocent.” Now, however, it is plain, by definition, that a nuclear war could never be “just” and that certain earlier legal distinctions (e.g., just war vs. unjust war) must be continuously conformed to the ever-changing technologies of military destruction. The only sensible adaptation in this regard must be to acknowledge the persisting connections between international law and natural law, and then to oppose any retrograde movements by powerful nation states to undermine such acknowledgments.
In the final analysis, to successfully prevent a nuclear war in the Middle East, it will be necessary to resist mightily any world system declensions toward further belligerent nationalism. Among other things, especially in the United States, this will require serious safeguards against another “mass man” as president. For the next four years at least, reassuringly, it does not appear that America need worry about another Trump-type strategic retrogression.
There is more. Nuclear deterrence and conventional deterrence are never separate security postures. Always, these seemingly discrete protective strategies are structurally interrelated and mutually reinforcing .
A nuclear attack or nuclear war in the Middle East is never quite out of the question; it is never a casually dismissible prospect, even if Israel should remain the only nuclear weapons state in the region. But how is this possible? The correct answer lies in the irremediably complex and deeply nuanced structure of nuclear warfare possibilities, in the Middle East especially, but also anywhere else that such conflict is logically possible.
A bellum atomicum could arrive in Israel not only as a “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy nuclear missile attack, but also as a result, intended or unwitting, of certain dynamic escalations. If, for example, particular Arab/Islamic states or Iran were to begin hostilities by launching “only” conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem could then decide to respond, sooner or later, and foolishly or wisely, with precisely calculated and correspondingly graduated nuclear reprisals. Alternatively, if these enemy states were to commence conflict by releasing certain larger-scale conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s own conventional reprisals could then be met, at least sometime in the future, with assorted enemy nuclear counterstrikes.
In the past, Israeli conventional preemptions have figured importantly in presumptive resolution of nuclear threat possibilities. If it hadn’t been for Israel’s earlier defensive first-strike operations against Iraq and Syria (Operations Opera and Orchard,respectively), the Middle East would likely already have suffered certain critically destabilizing impacts of Arab/Islamist nuclear forces. Looking back upon these literally unprecedented examples of anticipatory self-defense, Israel effectively ensured that assorted terror groups (e.g., ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah) would not already have become nuclear.
The generally unrecognized benefits of these extraordinary operations have impacted not only Israel, but also the United States and some of its allies.
The regional future, however, is rapidly apt to become substantially less secure. With a still aspirational nuclear Iran, certain derivative risks of nuclear terrorism could become increasingly intolerable. Some of these newer risks might not stay reassuringly confined to the Middle East. Instead, in one form or other, they could “carry over” to certain scarcely well-protected American and/or European homelands.
By maintaining a credible conventional deterrent, Israel could reasonably expect to reduce its exposure to eventual nuclear war fighting. A fully persuasive Israeli non-nuclear deterrent, at least to the extent that it could reliably prevent enemy conventional attacks, might thereby lower the country’s overall risk of exposure to nuclear escalatory vulnerabilities. More precisely, and in the exquisitely arcane lexicon of dialectical nuclear strategy, Israel could reap meaningful security gains by always staying in conspicuously firm control of “escalation dominance.”
In such intra-crisis calculations, being “conspicuous” is always potentially very important.
Meaningful security gains, moreover, could sometime turn out to have genuinely existential benefits.
Still, a further prior question should now also be raised. Why, after all, should Israel require a conventional deterrent at all? Wouldn’t its presumed nuclear deterrent, taken by itself, and whether still ambiguous or more explicitly disclosed, convincingly deter any and all state-generated aggressions? Wouldn’t all enemy states, at least those that were determinedly rational, resist launching “merely” conventional attacks upon a presumptively nuclear Israel?
This welcome reluctance would stem from a determinably well-founded fear of Israeli nuclear retaliations.
The underlying “dialectic” here will need to be carefully charted and understood. Assuming that Israel would cross the specifically nuclear threshold only in highly unusual and existentially threatening circumstances, enemy states could remain convinced, rightly or wrongly, that as long as their own initial attacks were to stay entirely conventional, Israel’s “proportionate” response would remain similarly non-nuclear. This means, at least by reasonably calculated inference, but also by virtue of the documented history of Israel’s several wars, that the only way for the Jewish State to successfully deter a large-scale conventional war over time must be by maintaining large-scale, capable and reciprocally secure conventional forces.
Certain noteworthy strategic possibilities now warrant special mention. Any rational Arab/Islamic enemy states considering first-strike attacks against Israel using chemical and/or biological weapons could take much more seriously Israel’s nuclear deterrent. This argument suggests, inter alia, that a strong conventional capability will still be needed by Israel to deter or preempt any anticipated conventional attacks, more-or-less plausible strikes that could quickly lead (perhaps via starkly unpredictable escalations) to some form or other of unconventional war.
Inevitably, in seeking to continually reassess their own power positions, Israel’s enemies will strive to determine just how Jerusalem views its own conventional weapon opportunities and limitations. If Arab/Islamic enemy states did not perceive any Israeli sense of an expanding conventional force weakness, these states, animated by certain expectations of an Israeli unwillingness to escalate to nonconventional weapons, might then opt rationally to attack. The net result in this revealing scenario could include: (1) defeat of Israel in a conventional war; (2) defeat of Israel in an unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) war; (3) defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/unconventional war; or (4) defeat of Arab/Islamic enemy states by Israel in an unconventional war.
Ironically for Israel, even the presumptively “successful” fourth possibility could prove catastrophic. This counter-intuitive conclusion should once again bring to mind the closely related and similarly counter-intuitive matter of Israel’s “bomb in the basement,” its deliberate nuclear ambiguity. In essence, the credibility of Israel’s still hidden or “opaque” nuclear deterrent must always depend on the perceived “usability” of its nuclear arsenal. Should Israel’s own nuclear weapons be regarded by pertinent prospective attackers as high-yield, indiscriminate, “city-busting” (counter-value) weapons, rather than minimal-yield, “war fighting” (counterforce) ordnance, they might not meaningfully deter.
Conceivably, and contrary to virtually all prevailing conventional wisdom on the subject, successful Israeli nuclear deterrence could sometime vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. Going forward, this means that Israel’s indispensable nuclear deterrent will require not only recognizably secure second-strike forces, but also weapons that seemingly could be used effectively in “real war.” It also suggests that any continued Israeli policies of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” could encourage variously erroneous calculations by certain prospective attackers. On one occasion or another, such an out-of-date and unsystematic policy could significantly undermine Israel’s nuclear deterrent, perhaps irretrievably.
In complex matters of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it must never be minimized that enemy perceptions will be determinative. Unintentionally, to be sure, by insistently keeping its nuclear doctrine and capacity in the “basement,” Israel could actually be contributing to a growing impression among regional enemies that its nuclear weapons are not operationally usable. In these sorely problematic circumstances, starkly recalcitrant enemies, now not-quite convinced of Israel’s alleged willingness to employ its nuclear weapons, might calculate the presumed cost-effectiveness of striking first themselves.
Depending upon the particular circumstances, any such adversarial acceptance could be reluctant or enthusiastic, but with the same or similar outcomes for Israel.
For Israel, any such adversarial presumptions could sometime prove “unacceptable.”
There is more. A nuclear war would not respect political boundaries. Because of the particular manner in which nuclear explosions behave in the atmosphere, the altitude reached by a distinctive mushroom-shaped cloud would depend primarily upon tangible forces of the explosion. For yields in the low-kiloton range, this cloud would remain situated in the lower atmosphere. Its effects, therefore, would be almost entirely “local.” For those yields exceeding thirty kilotons, parts of the cloud of radioactive debris could “punch” into the stratosphere, thereby afflicting the launching state and certain noncombatant states together.
To best prevent a regional nuclear war, especially as Iran will likely continue to approach full and effectively irreversible membership in the “nuclear club,” Israel will need to field a dependable nuclear deterrent. At the same time, it cannot properly rely exclusively upon this one necessary basis of national security doctrine any more than it can depend solely upon conventional deterrence. It must depend, instead, upon increasingly complementary nuclear/conventional forces and doctrine, appropriately intersecting systems of anti-missile defenses, and even the residual availability of certain eleventh-hour preemption options.
Even now, when the expected costs of any preemption against Iran could already be unacceptably high, Israel should not disavow absolutely all last-resort options for anticipatory self-defense. By definition, there might still be some eventually recognizable consequences of not-preempting that are expectedly greater than the foreseeable costs of a properly focused preemption.
In the volatile Middle East, strategic deterrence is a “game” that sane national leaders may sometime have to play, but it ought always be a game of strategy, not merely one of chance. In Jerusalem, this means, among other things, a continuing willingness to respect the full range of relevant doctrinal complexity – both its own military doctrines, and those of its pertinent enemies – and a willingness to forge ahead with appropriate and reciprocally complex security policies. Inevitably, to successfully influence the choices that prospectively fearsome adversaries could make vis-à-vis Israel, Jerusalem will first need to clarify unambiguously that its conventional and nuclear deterrence are seamlessly intersecting, and that Israel stands ready to counter enemy attacks at absolutely every conceivable level of possible confrontation.
There remain two last but still very important and related points to be made.
First, whether Israel’s intersecting and overlapping deterrent processes are geared primarily toward conventional or to nuclear threats, their success will ultimately depend upon the expected rationality of the nation’s relevant enemies. In those residual cases where such rationality appears implausible, Jerusalem could then find itself under considerable pressures to strike first preemptively. If Jerusalem’s own expected responses were to be judged rational themselves, they might then also need to include a conclusive and operationally-reliable option for expressing anticipatory self-defense. For Israel, it goes without saying that regional conflict prospects should always be curtailed at the very lowest possible levels of controlled engagement, and that under no circumstances should Israel ever need to find itself having to preempt against an already nuclear adversary.
To prevent such unacceptable but still imaginable circumstances should be Jerusalem’s altogether overriding security obligation.
Second, even the most meticulous plans for preventing a deliberately-inflicted nuclear conflict would not automatically remove all attendant dangers of an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. While an accidental nuclear war would necessarily be inadvertent, there are certain forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be caused by mechanical, electrical or computer accident. These particular but still-consequential forms of unintentional nuclear conflict could represent the unexpected result of sheer misjudgment or simple miscalculation, whether created as a singular error by one or both sides to a particular (two-party) nuclear crisis escalation; or by certain still unforeseen “synergies” arising between any such singular miscalculations.
It follows from such vital obiter dicta that the only predictable aspect of any nuclear crisis involving Israel would be its vast and utter unpredictability. More than anything else, this conclusion implies an insistent obligation, in Jerusalem, to remain not only vigilant about comprehensive enemy capabilities and intentions, but also to be relentlessly cautious and studiously modest about Israel’s own capacities to control all prospectively “untoward ” nuclear events.
Israel, though perhaps largely unaware, is entering into a period of trembling uncertainty. While certain national leaders may presently calculate that security matters are “looking up” – that is, that the expected benefits of the Abraham Accords and corollary normalization agreements (Sudan and Morocco) will outweigh the risks – such simplistic calculations would eventually be forced to confront a far less congenial strategic reality. Even if US President Joseph Biden should succeed in bringing the United States back into calculably viable JCPOA arrangements, the severe harms caused by Trump-generated errors on Iranian nuclearization are unlikely to be tangibly reversed. For Jerusalem, this signifies, above all else, a basic obligation to fashion a continuously refined national strategy of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war avoidance.
For this preeminently intellectual task, American assistance would be largely beside the point.
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