A survival imperative - Israel's nuclear weapons and strategy

Although widely unacknowledged, Israel's alleged nuclear weapons represent a critical impediment to the actual military use of nuclear weapons, and to the commencement of a regional nuclear war.

Dimona nuclear reactor 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dimona nuclear reactor 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Each year, like clockwork, Israel's enemies advance high-sounding proposals for a nuclear-weapons free-zone in the Middle East. Although, at first hearing, such "Geneva" proposals sound eminently fair and reasonable, in fact, they point to meticulously calculated reconfigurations of regional power that would endanger only Israel. Incontestably, once bereft of its nuclear forces, whether newly-disclosed or still in the metaphoric "basement," the Jewish State would be left entirely to the tender mercies of its most refractory adversaries. 
Whether singly or in some combination, these determined foes would then emerge with substantially greater destructive capacities than Israel.
From the very beginning, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had understood the absurdity of seeking to protect a beleaguered state smaller than America's Lake Michigan with ordinary conventional forces. Fully exploiting the new state's unique intellectual power, some dramatic force equalizer would be needed, figured Ben-Gurion. This equalizer, of course, would quickly become the Israeli Bomb. 
To be sure, even now, the credibility of Israel's  nuclear deterrent could still be enhanced further, that is, if certain incremental steps were taken to end the longstanding policy of "deliberate ambiguity." But more about such steps in a moment.
Today, with Iran’s effectively unopposed nuclearization, and also the consequent Saudi and Egyptian inclinations toward "going nuclear" themselves, an  eventual nuclear war, or even a “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack, cannot simply be ruled out. This means, among other things, that strategic planners in Tel-Aviv will need to continually augment operational strategies of nuclear deterrence with apt kinds of diplomacy, ballistic missile defense, and also certain plausibly alternative forms of preemption. This last option could take the form of nuanced cyber-attacks, or even selective regime-change interventions that would fall short of outright war.  
Jurisprudentially, any or all of these alternative kinds of preemption could be considered as legitimate expressions of “anticipatory self-defense.” International law, after all, is never a suicide pact. In law, no country is ever obligated to sit back, and wait passively to be attacked. This argument can be found as far back as the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy),  and has been an integral part of customary international law since the classic case of The Caroline in 1837.
There is a related issue for Israel, one that military planners would properly designate under the heading of "synergies." This issue concerns the ongoing question of Palestinian statehood. As US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State proceed with their particular interpretation of the Middle East Peace Process, an independent state of Palestine will sometime be carved out of the still-living body of Israel. This 23rd Arab state could unhesitatingly become an optimal platform for future war and terror against Israel. Ironically, any such development could create corollary security threats to the much larger United States.
President Obama still seeks “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Significantly, the worst-case existential threat posed by a Palestinian state would require some antecedent forms of Israeli nuclear disarmament, precisely the forms associated with unceasing calls for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free-Zone. And once an enemy state and its allies believed that Israel had been bent sufficiently to "nonproliferation" demands,  adversarial military strategies could progress more-or-less seamlessly, from terror to war, and from attrition to annihilation. 
Any ill-considered Israeli moves toward denuclearization could remove that tiny country’s last critical barrier to national survival. This would be the case even if all of Israel's national adversaries were somehow to remain non-nuclear themselves. As Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780 - 1831) argued in his classic text, On War, there can readily come a time when "mass counts."
Israel's unilateral nuclear disarmament is improbable, but it is not inconceivable. Certain of the country's leading academic strategists continue to openly make this sort of disingenuous argument. I have debated them myself on the pages of Harvard University’s authoritative journal, International Security. 
For many well-intentioned observers, it is difficult to imagine nuclear weapons as anything other than inherently evil. Nonetheless, there are identifiable circumstances wherein a particular state's possession of such weapons may be all that protects it from war or genocide. Because such weapons may effectively deter international aggression, at least in those cases where the prospective aggressor remains rational, their possession could also protect neighboring states, both friends and foes, from war-related, or even nuclear-inflicted, harms.
President Obama, not all members of the Nuclear Club need be a security menace. Some may offer a distinct and clear benefit to world peace and security. This point should already be obvious to everyone who can remember the Cold War.
Should Israel be deprived of its alleged nuclear forces for any reason, the Jewish State could become vulnerable to overwhelming attacks from certain enemy states. Although such existential vulnerabilities might be prevented, in principle, by instituting parallel forms of chemical/biological weapons disarmament among these foes, such steps would never actually be taken. Verification of compliance in these matters is exceedingly difficult, and such verification would become even more problematic wherever several enemy states would be involved.  
President  Obama misunderstands. Nuclear weapons are not the problem per se.  In the Middle East, the core problem remains a far-reaching and unreconstructed Jihadist commitment to "excise the Jewish cancer." This commitment is more-or-less common to both adversarial Sunni Arab nations, and to Shiite Iran.
The western democracies  should finally understand that the Road Map to Peace in the Middle East is little more than a pragmatic enemy expedient. In essence, it represents a nicely-phrased cartographic stratagem that is designed to weaken Israel, in "stages," ultimately to the breaking point, a position where it can no longer endure.
With its nuclear weapons, even if held ambiguously in the "basement," Israel might still be able to deter enemy unconventional attacks, and most large conventional aggressions. With such weapons, Israel, when operationally capable, could also launch certain non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state hard targets. Without these weapons, any such acts of anticipatory self-defense would likely represent the onset of a much wider war. This is because there would no longer be any persuasive threat of an Israeli counter retaliation.    
Although widely unacknowledged, Israel's nuclear weapons represent a critical impediment to the actual military use of nuclear weapons, and to the commencement of a regional nuclear war. They must, therefore,  remain at the very center of Israel's security policy, and must also be guided by a continuously updated and refined national strategic doctrine. Essential elements of such doctrine should include a carefully calibrated end to "deliberate ambiguity," more recognizable emphases on  "counter value" or counter-city targeting, and sufficiently compelling evidence of secure "triad" nuclear forces that are also presumed capable of penetrating any foreseeable aggressor's active defenses. 
Israel's latest efforts at diversified sea-basing of nuclear retaliatory forces are costly, but prudent. Similarly important will be meeting certain operational requirements for the Israel Air Force. In order to prepare for anticipated strikes at distances of approximately 1,000 kilometers, whether preemptive, retaliatory, or counter-retaliatory, the IAF now needs the "full envelope" of air refueling capabilities, upgraded satellite communications,  state-of-the-art  electronic warfare technologies, armaments fully appropriate to inflicting maximum target damage, and the latest-generation UAVs to accompany selected missions.
In the Middle East, Israel's nuclear weapons represent an absolutely indispensable impediment to enemy aggressions and nuclear war. With this in mind, Washington should openly reject the utterly shallow presidential mantra of a "world free of nuclear weapons," and support instead an abundantly strong and secure nuclear Israel.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue for forty-three years, he was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003).  Professor Beres is a frequent contributor to such publications as The Jerusalem Post; The Atlantic; US News & World Report; The Harvard National Security Journal; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Herzliya Conference Working Papers; Ha'aretz; and Israel National News. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.