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Staying Focused: Why Israel Needs More Coherent Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy

Prof. Louis René Beres

Falling towersJerusalem Athens AlexandriaVienna LondonUnreal.-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

On fundamental issues of national survival, the new Israeli prime minister must remain conspicuously above politics.  One core issue – arguably the most important issue of all – is Israel’s “ambiguous” nuclear strategy. Though news about the Middle East has recently been focused on sub-state or terrorist threats to Israel’s national security, ultimate concern in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv should still emphasize existential perils from enemy states.

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               Such overriding threats, both immediate and long-term, could involve certain inter-state or “hybrid” (state- terror group) intersections. For the moment, the most dangerous such intersection for Israel would be Iran and/or Syria fighting in alliance with Hezbollah. Significantly, this Shiite militia is already more of a genuine terror-army than a “mere” terror group.

               Always, complex geopolitical issues should be confronted first at a suitably conceptual or theoretic level. This means variously antecedent conceptual matters of seeking peace via threats of nuclear retaliatory destruction. As such matters are strategic and jurisprudential, they would not necessarily reinforce or even complement each other. Finally, evident elements of morality should also continue to be respected by a Jewish State rooted in Torah and Talmud.

               Further observations are axiomatic. To begin, nuclear weapons are not per se negative for global peace and national security. Rather, as thoughtful observers should already have been able to glean from U.S.- Soviet relations during the Cold War (we may now be embroiled in “Cold War II”), nuclear weapons could prove indispensable to the avoidanceof catastrophic war in general.

This is not a blanket or across-the-board observation. In prospectively subtle strategic matters, differentiation and nuance are plainly significant. It is plausible, for example, that any additional “horizontal” nuclear proliferation would be destabilizing, and that any further nuclear spread to non-nuclear states should be conscientiously prevented.

               That said, there are recognizable states/countries in our decentralized or “Westphalian” world system that could never survive in the global “state of nature” without maintaining a credible nuclear deterrence posture. The State of Israel is the most obvious case in point. It is conceivably the onlyreasonable example, but – prima facie – that sort of exclusionary judgment is politically sensitive. Ultimately, it must be contingent upon the reciprocally subjective expectations of other presumptively beleaguered states.

               “Everything is simple in war,” we learned long-ago from Carl von Clausewitz On War, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.”

What next?Should Israel ever have to face one or several enemies without credible nuclear deterrence, the prospect of an existential defeat could become real and intolerable. This is the case even in the absence of any specifically nuclear adversaries and regardless of whether Israeli nuclear deterrence would continue to be based upon policies of “deliberate ambiguity” – the so-called “bomb in the basement.” In all likelihood, Israel would already have begun to move toward certain limited and selectively defined forms of “nuclear disclosure.”

               In the main, these matters are not hopelessly bewildering. If it should ever be left without nuclear weapons, Israel might not long endure. More than any other state on earth, and perhaps even more than any other state in history, Israel requires nuclear weapons to remain “alive.”For anyone who has watched Middle Eastern security affairs evolve over the past seventy years (Israel became a modern state in May 1948), this sobering conclusion is meaningfully incontestable.

Periodically,within the United Nations, Israel’s assorted enemies introduce tactical resolutions calling, inter alia, for a Middle East “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.” Sometimes, these states have called for Israel to join the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and/or submitted a resolution of condemnation directed solely at Israel. On September 20, 2013, such a non-binding resolution specifically targeting Israel was defeated by a vote of 51 to 43, with 32 abstentions. This Iranian-backed resolution was defeated at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) annual general conference; significantly, it had expressed “concern about Israeli nuclear capabilities” and also called upon Israel “to accede to the NPT, and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.”

               Israel is a member of the IAEA, but it is not subject to IAEA inspections, except for a single and minor research facility.

                Should Israel ever feel compelled to heed such intentionally one-sided resolutions, possibly in response to misguided political pressures from Washington, nothing of decisive military consequence might then stand in the way of singular or coordinated Arab or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once commented, “mass counts.” But Israel lacks mass. Without its nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and conspicuously recognizable, the indispensable core of Israel’s capacity to deter major enemy assaults could irremediably disappear.

               In late September, 2013, then new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was sounding more conciliatory and reasonable to Israel and the United States than his rancorous predecessor. At one level of assessment, Rouhani’s diplomatic discourse was no longer corrosive or expressly genocidal. Nonetheless, real power in Tehran has remained with senior clerical leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In those key quarters, little or nothing has changed. The next Iranian presidential election will be on 15 June 2021.

               Back on September 22, 2013, Iran’s military forces publicly paraded their arsenal of ballistic missiles deemed capable of hitting Israel. According to western intelligence at the time, Iran displayed 30 missiles, 12 Sejil and 18 Ghadr, with a nominal range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). This was the first time that Iran had featured so many missiles, two-stage weapons using solid fuel (with a verifiable capacity to strike Israeli target and U.S. bases in the Gulf.)

               The Iranian president had been focused on Israel’s chemical weapons, urging, in the name of “fairness,” that Jerusalem be deprived of both its nuclear and its chemical arsenal. Pointing to ongoing chemical disarmament efforts then being directed at Syria, the Iranian Foreign Ministry also urged that Israel pledge to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

               Geopolitically, the Tehran regime’s plan was to displace pressure from its core ally in Damascus and to undermine Israel’s non-nuclear deterrence posture. Israel did sign the CWC in 1982, but Jerusalem never formally ratified the agreement. In strict jurisprudential terms, non-ratification is not automatically exculpatory, because all states, whether or not they are formal parties to this particular agreement, are still bound by all pertinent and pre-existing customary international law.

               Prima facie, no Israeli government would ever use chemical weapons against noncombatants. Moreover, its implicit deterrent threat of using such weapons against enemy military forces could concern only an existentially last-resort retaliation for the adversarial state’s prior and unconventional aggression. In the final analysis, Israel’s only true existential protection must lie with its presumptive nuclear forces. What is needed now, apropos of this utterly basic requirement, is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of the country’s underlying nuclear doctrine and strategy.

               Core requirements don’t really change. Without proper doctrine and strategy, Israel’s nuclear forces could sometime become little more than a disjointed mélange of military hardware, one without any recognizable and usable Order of Battle.

               The next time that Israel is forced to defend its multi-system deterrence posture from adversarial calls toenter a regional “nuclear weapons free-zone” or join the NPT, the new prime minister in Jerusalem should already have at hand much more “ammunition” than polite syntax of diplomatic rejection. His Minister of Defense should also already maintain a conceptual and strategic template for optimally coherent national security preparation. Most important, in this regard, will be a persuasive understanding of why Israel should remain a nuclear power and whether the “bomb in the basement” should remain “ambiguous” or sometime be disclosed.

Any usefully correct answer must include at least the following coalescing arguments, some of which may be intersecting, interpenetrating or synergistic.

  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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