Predictably, with this month’s special meetings in New York about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty drawing to a close, attention is again focused on Israel’s nuclear posture. Still troubled by Israel’s continuation of “deliberate ambiguity” in its strategic nuclear doctrine, some states are calling for disclosure. Although a formal end to keeping the bomb in the basement could surely cause Israel some substantial diplomatic difficulties, a prudently selective disclosure of Israel’s nuclear assets and doctrine could be seriously helpful to Israel’s increasingly imperiled security.
So, let Prime Minister Ariel Sharon do what his critics in New York now ask of him. Let him prepare to release in very broad outlines certain of Israel’s purposeful nuclear capacities and postures. The net effect of such a release, especially if it were to come after Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, would be gainful for Israel both politically and strategically.
What must also be understood is that Israel’s nuclear weapons are primarily intended not for a “Samson Option” — not for an apocalyptic “End of the Third Temple Commonwealth” reprisal — but rather for very complex and nuanced functions of deterrence and national defense.
To protect against existential enemy attack, possibly one with biologicaland/ornuclear weapons, Israel must systematically prepare to exploit its still-latent nuclear assets. Here, the success of Israel’s efforts will depend not only upon its particular configuration of “countervalue” (countercity) operations, but also upon the extent to which this configuration is made known in advance. Before an enemy state is deterred from striking first, or before it can be deterred from launching retaliatory strikes following an Israeli non-nuclear preemption, it will not be enough that it “knows” Israel has nuclear weapons. It will also need to recognize that these Israeli weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attack and/or that these weapons are targeted on their own cities. It could also be vital that these would-be aggressor states fully recognize that their individual national leaders would die in any expected Israeli atomic reprisal.
Israel must now strengthen its nuclear deterrence so that an enemy state will always reason a first-strike attack would be irrational. To accomplish the important objective, Israel must convince would-be attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with certain nuclear weapons. Where an enemy state considering an attack upon Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these elements, it might choose to strike first. This would depend in part upon the particular value it places upon the expected outcome of such an attack.
About willingness, even if Israel were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, an enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could provoke an attack. Here, misperception or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence.
About capacity, even if Israel maintains a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states believe these weapons to be persuasive. This means that if a first-strike attack is believed capable of destroying Israel’s arsenal, the Jewish state’s nuclear deterrent will be immobilized. Even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured so that they could not possibly be destroyed by an enemy first- strike, enemy misperceptions about Israel’s vulnerability could still cause a failure of Israeli nuclear deterrence.
The importance of persuasive nuclear weapons must also be examined from the standpoint of probable harms. Should Israel’s nuclear weapons be seen by an enemy state as high-yield, “city-busting” weapons, they might deter more reliably. Enemy states must understand that Israel not only has secure second-strike nuclear forces, but also that these forces could be used credibly against high-value targets. Israel’s nuclear weapons would not be intended for warfighting.
Israel’s physical survival ultimately depends upon its nuclear weapons and doctrine. Although an immediate end to “deliberate ambiguity” is probably unnecessary, this would change the moment that Iran were seen as irrevocably nuclear.
Under the best of circumstances, Israel and/or the United States would prevent a nuclear Iran by fully lawful expressions of “anticipatory self-defense” — indispensable pre-emptions under longstanding customary international law. But if these countries should fail to seize the strategic moment on the Islamic Republic of Iran, a moment made even more critical by the distinct possibility of an irrational Iranian leadership with nuclear weapons, Israel will have absolutely no choice but to promptly remove its bomb from the basement.
Louis Rene Beres, who publishes widely on Israeli security matters, is chairman of Project Daniel, a private group that has presented its report on existential nuclear matters to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.