Ensuring Israel's survival: Targeted threats and remedies

In limiting the expected harm of a nuclear Iran, Israel would be well-advised to further enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture.

Dimona nuclear reactor 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dimona nuclear reactor 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When it is assessed in narrowly scientific terms, modern Israel's physical survival has never been a safe bet. After all, from the very beginning, even before the UN's  grant of statehood took legal effect in May 1948, the common goal of Israel's enemies has been plain. Unrelieved, even by time, this goal remains what is has always been: collective Jewish extermination.
There is an obvious corollary to any such proposition in world politics. Israel exists perilously, in a tentative condition of permanent insecurity and unending vulnerability. Among other more particular liabilities, this situation represents the most bitter of historical ironies. Israel, an ancient nation that was ingathered in mid-20th century, expressly to prevent another genocide, has been targeted for another "Final Solution."
Jurisprudentially, because war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive, a second Holocaust could be unleashed, in whole or in part, by nuclear and/or biological attacks. In preparing to launch such attacks, determined enemy states such as Iran could be aided, even unwittingly, by more or less simultaneous Palestinian movements toward a "Two-State Solution." It follows that the targeted threats from Iran, and the targeted threats from "Palestine," are not really separate and discrete, but rather intersecting and interpenetrating. In narrowly military parlance, they could be described as "force-multipliers."
Oddly, perhaps, this critical linkage of threats has yet to be meaningfully understood. In brief, Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian "self-determination" could become mutually reinforcing, or, in somewhat technical/biological terms, "synergistic." Israel's survival could then become substantially more problematic than if the Jewish State had to deal with only one or the other of these two existential threats.
“For what can be done against force, without force?” inquired the Roman statesman, Cicero, more than 2000 years ago. The use of force in world politics is never evil in itself. On the contrary, in preventing nuclear and terrorist aggressions, force or threats of force may almost always be required; often, they are indispensable.
All states have a fundamental and irreducible right of self-defense. This "peremptory" right is made explicit and unambiguous in both codified and customary international law. It can be found, most conspicuously, at Article 51 of the UN Charter, and also in multiple jurisprudential clarifications of what is correctly called anticipatory self-defense.
In law, Israel has every available right to forcibly confront both the expected harms of Iranian nuclear missile strikes, and the more-or-less related expressions of Palestinian terror. The problem is that although such a confrontation could be perfectly lawful or permissible, it would not necessarily be operationally successful. In all world politics, any specific national military posture may be perfectly legal, but still be ineffectual.
What is to be done?
On the Palestinian front, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has already accepted the idea of a 23rd Arab state that would be "demilitarized." The core dilemma, however, is that the Palestinian side (Hamas, Fatah, it makes little real difference) still seeks only a One-State Solution (see their official maps), and a demilitarized Palestine could never be made to work. Any post-independence abrogation of earlier pre-state agreements to demilitarize, once announced by a now-sovereign Palestinian state, could prove incontestable under authoritative international law.
Iran is a determinedly frontline Islamic state, one with a plausibly near-term potential to inflict nuclear harms upon Israel. The “international community” has done nothing to genuinely impede Iranian nuclearization. Once-heralded “economic sanctions” have caused ordinary Iranians considerable economic pain and discomfort, but they also have not slowed the development of that country's nuclear weapons option.
An aptly palpable metaphor comes to mind:  For Iran, these sanctions have irritated little more than would a fly on an elephant’s back.
What about America? If US President Barack Obama’s wish for “a world free of nuclear weapons” were ever taken seriously, even as a carefully crafted end-run toward a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Israel wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, this American presidential preference is not only prima facie foolish; it is also patently unrealistic, and therefore destined to fail.
For the foreseeable future, at least, Israel will likely retain some deterrence benefit of its alleged, still-undeclared "bomb in the basement."
Over time, however, it is likely that the longstanding Israeli policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity will have to give way to certain limited and selective forms of nuclear disclosure. In this calculably reluctant policy transformation, enemy states, real and prospective, will need to be convinced that Israel maintains both the capability, and the willingness, to respond to determinably major first-strike aggressions, with an "assuredly-destructive" reprisal. In the vital matter of perceived capability, such enemies will need to believe, among other things, that Israel's nuclear forces are distinctly usable, and also capable of penetrating their enemies' active (ballistic missile) defenses.
Sometimes, especially in complex matters of military strategy, truth is counter-intuitive. Expected "usability" may vary inversely with expected yields of destructiveness. This means that any enemy perceptions of a too-large or too-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons capability could  actually impair rather than enhance Israel's essential nuclear deterrent.
The "Road Map," or Middle East Peace Process, will not save Israel. Expanding economic sanctions against Iran will not save Israel. Once Iran had begun a countdown-to-launch of its nuclear weapons against Israel, US President Barack Obama's only possible assistance would be to help with the mass burial of Israel's myriad dead. Moreover, before even this post-catastrophe "remedy" could be applied, entire Israeli cities would first need to be transformed into giant cemeteries.
To cope with any prospective harm issuing forth from Iran and "Palestine," Israeli planners will need to focus intently upon effectively diminishing both threat components. In the best of all possible worlds, a Palestinian terror state and an Iranian nuclear capacity could still be prevented. As a practical matter, however, the best available outcome at this time would include: (1) a Palestinian state, without any sovereign-authority over Jerusalem, and within still-manageable borders for Israel; and (2) a very slowly nuclearizing Iran, one that remains fully rational in all decisional matters of war and peace, and fully subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence.
In limiting the expected harms of "Palestine," there would be little point for Israel to seek enforcement of any pre-independence Palestinian commitments to demilitarize. For both legal and strategic reasons, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's declared policy contingencies notwithstanding, no such demilitarization measures would actually be implemented.
In limiting the expected harm of a nuclear Iran, Israel would be well-advised to further enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture. This could be done, incrementally, and in part, by moving cautiously beyond its tenuous stance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity or "bomb in the basement," and by continuing its reciprocal improvements of ballistic missile defense, especially the Arrow.
Significantly, at this already late date, any residual benefits of a preemptive strike against pertinent Iranian hard targets, would likely be outweighed by any prospective costs.    ------------------Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on issues concerning international relations and international law, especially war and terrorism.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. In Israel, Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel (2003). He is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue.