Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s explicit reference on Dec. 11 to his country’s nuclear weapons was hardly a “slip of the tongue.” Rather, it was an intentional attempt to remind Israel’s enemies that despite a long-standing policy of “opacity” or “deliberate ambiguity,” the Jewish state would make any aggressor pay existentially for launching annihilatory attacks. Nor was Mr. Olmert’s lifting of Israel’s nuclear veil unprecedented. More than 10 years ago, Shimon Peres had publicly advanced the idea of unilateral denuclearization in exchange for “peace.”

But a coherent strategic doctrine is now needed to provide Israel with broad nuclear policy frameworks. In fashioning this essential doctrine, Israel must address these major questions:

n Should Israel now begin to identify certain general elements of its nuclear arsenal and nuclear plans?

n Would it be in Israel’s best interests to make certain that others are sufficiently aware of its nuclear targeting doctrine, its retaliatory and counter-retaliatory capacities, its willingness under particular conditions to pre-empt; and its capacities for ballistic missile defense?

The Arab-Islamic awareness of an Israeli bomb does not automatically imply that Israel has credible nuclear deterrence. If Israel’s nuclear arsenal were seen as vulnerable to first-strikes it might not persuade enemy states to resist attacking the Jewish state. Similarly, if Israel’s political leadership were seen as unwilling to resort to nuclear weapons in reprisal for anything but unconventional strikes, these enemy states may not be deterred. If Israel’s targeting doctrine were judged to be predominantly focused on enemy state weapons and supporting military infrastructures, enemy states could so fear an Israeli first-strike that they would then consider striking first themselves.

How shall enemy states be apprised of Israel’s targeting doctrine? It is no longer enough that Israel’s enemies merely know that the Jewish state has nuclear weapons. They must also be convinced that these arms are secure and that Israel’s leadership is actually willing to launch these weapons against high-value city targets in response to certain first strike and retaliatory attacks.

Israel’s strategic doctrine must aim at strengthening nuclear deterrence. It can meet this objective only by convincing enemy states that a first-strike upon Israel will always be irrational. This means communicating to enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. Hence, Israel’s strategic doctrine must always convince prospective attackers that their intended victim has both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons. If an enemy state considering an attack upon Israel were unconvinced about either or both of these components of nuclear deterrence, it could choose to strike first. This would depend in part upon the particular value it placed upon the expected consequences of such an attack.

Regarding capacity: Even if Israel were to maintain a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is necessary that enemy states believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack were believed capable of sufficiently destroying Israel’s atomic arsenal and pertinent infrastructures, that country’s nuclear deterrent could be immobilized. Even if Israel’s nuclear weapons could not be destroyed by an enemy first-strike, enemy misperceptions or misjudgments about Israeli vulnerability could still bring about the catastrophic failure of Israeli nuclear deterrence.

To the extent that Israel’s doctrine actually identifies nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal, more disclosure could contribute to Israeli nuclear deterrence. Without such disclosure, Israel’s enemies will be kept guessing about the Jewish state’s probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could serve Israel’s survival for a while longer, but — at one time or another — could come apart.

Prime Minister Olmert’s public comment on Israel’s nuclear capacity was a good first-step to enhanced nuclear deterrence. But it was only a good beginning.

Louis Rene Beres, who has counseled various government agencies in Washington and Jerusalem, is an author who served as chairman of Project Daniel under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Maj. Gen. Paul E.Vallely, retired, is a military analyst for Fox News and host of the radio show “Stand Up America.”

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