Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a mistake in not attending the International Nuclear Summit in Washington earlier this month. Not only should he have attended, but he should have also dropped this (pardon the pun) bombshell: “Israel is now prepared to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” That, of course, would lead to a reverse in the decades’ long policy of obfuscation about our nuclear program, admitting publicly for the first time what everyone already knows.
Netanyahu should not have stopped there. He should also have seized the opportunity – and the world’s stage – to declare Israel’s willingness to not only open up its nuclear facilities for inspection, but also a desire to reduce, and eventually completely decommission, our entire nuclear arsenal.
What could justify such a dramatic reversal of policy? It is not, as some readers might assume, because I am a wild-eyed, naïve liberal who never found a weapons system I didn’t hate nor a war worth pursuing. To the contrary, most people who know me would consider me a part of the right-of-center camp. Indeed, as a student of realpolitik, I firmly believe in not only the projection of power (as a necessity for deterrence) but also actual power itself.
And if I ever had any doubts, I eerily completed writing the above sentence just as the soul-piercing siren blasted here in Israel to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. Upon hearing it, I dutifully rose from my chair and stood silently in contemplation. For those two minutes during which this siren rang on the outside, the conviction to never allow Jews to relinquish the ability to defend themselves rang equally powerfully on my inside.
SO WHAT gives? Why should Israel voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weaponry, our most powerful commitment to and meaningful expression of the phrase “never again”? There are two answers: The world has changed, and our values have not.
Let’s talk about the world first. When Israel developed nuclear weapons, our neighborhood was populated by some very dangerous – but marginally rational – states. The threat of being wiped off the map by an Israel that felt it had no other available option provided the necessary incentive for these states to behave slightly more rationally and slightly less dangerously. Nuclear weapons, therefore, made sense. In deterring our enemies from taking too risky a gamble at destroying us, they lowered the flame of both the potential for war as well as the intensity of one if in fact it broke out.
Today, however, our nuclear arsenal is beginning to play an entirely different role. Rather than keeping the flame low, it is inspiring others to pursue their own nuclear ambitions – and unfortunately, it is our justified desire to prevent these ambitions from being fulfilled that might ignite the next significant war. So rather than serving as a deterrent for war, it might actually become an accelerator. Additionally, it might very well be the relative powerlessness of these states that has inspired them to use terror proxies to attack us on our northern and southern borders.
Which leads me to the next point: The greatest threat to Israel’s existence today does not emanate from these dangerous state actors alone, but also from a variety of dangerous nonstate actors – such as terrorist entities which might somehow acquire a small nuclear device capable of being concealed in a suitcase.
Against such a threat, our nuclear arsenal is impotent. After all, unlike our enemies of days gone by, these terrorists have no address to send a return package. Worse still, they would enjoy nothing more than the chaos and condemnation created by pushing Israel into a corner where it might actually push the button. In such a new world, the once sanguine policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is simply mad.
And then, of course, there are our values, which thankfully have not changed. Simply put, Judaism cherishes life and commands us to pursue policies that protect it at every turn – first, of course, the lives of our own people (as is the responsibility of every state), but also significantly, the lives of innocent people everywhere.
A few decades ago, the policy of nuclear ambiguity fulfilled this directive beautifully. War was minimized because the threat to our enemies of annihilation was not. Today, Israel must continue to project power in a number of ways to continue to protect life, and for that reason I am a firm believer in a strong army and a strong – and immediate – response to any threat confronting the country.
But the projection of nuclear power is not one of those ways. If Iran acquires the bomb, what will happen? Are we prepared to preemptively launch a nuclear attack sure to kill millions of innocent civilians? I can’t imagine that would be the case; such a scenario, one very much unlike our preemptive military attack in 1967, is the polar opposite of our commitment to life.
On the other hand, if our nuclear weapons are used merely in response to an Iranian attack, that means we’re all probably dead and Israel is an uninhabitable wasteland. In such a case, our arsenal is not a deterrent but rather a tool for vengeance.
TODAY, THE most important nuclear goals we can pursue are to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons and to limit nuclear technology in such a way as to minimize the risk of it falling into the hands of a terrorist organization. Our nuclear arsenal cannot help in either cause.
If, however, we become the first nuclear power to voluntarily eliminate our nuclear stockpile – a stockpile, as I suggest above, which no longer helps us anyway – we are in an infinitely better position to pursue both of these goals. We remove the alleged justification for any of our enemies to pursue their own nuclear program. We remove any hesitation other states might have harbored as an excuse to pursue sanctions against Iran – and military intervention if it becomes necessary.
No longer can it be argued that Iran is simply defending itself. Or
that a double standard exists. Or that the world’s tolerance of
Israel’s nuclear program means that everyone has a right to the
technology. On the positive side, it allows Israel to not only attend
these conferences on nuclear policy with its head held high, but also
frees us to take a leadership position in the decommissioning of
nuclear weapons everywhere.
And that might just change the world yet again, this time for the better – and thanks to our values.
The writer is a Jerusalem-based rabbi
and lawyer with an international relations degree from Georgetown
University. He is the author of
The Accidental Zionist (New Song Publishers) and runs the blog Joyous Judaism.