Surviving in an even worse neighborhood: Israel and growing Mideast chaos

For Israel, the Middle East has always been a bad neighborhood. Soon, it is apt to get much worse.

A fighter of the ISIS stands guard with his weapon in Mosul (photo credit: REUTERS)
A fighter of the ISIS stands guard with his weapon in Mosul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just when it seemed that matters for Israel couldn't possibly get any worse, "ordinary" security challenges are being augmented by still more complex strategic threats. Now, the "usual" problems of Palestinian terror and Iranian nuclearization will need to be evaluated and possibly even reassessed in light of much broader regional patterns of intra-Islamic strife. In this connection, likely spillover threats from rapid Sunni/ISIS advances in Iraq, and the reciprocal Shiite responses fashioned largely in Tehran and Damascus, come urgently to mind.
Of course, when considered in narrowly scientific terms, modern Israel's physical survival has never been a safe bet. From the beginning, and 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 and undiminished over time, this overriding objective remains what is has always been: collective extermination of the Jewish State.
In one respect, there is nothing new under the sun. Israel has always existed perilously, always in a tentative condition of permanent insecurity and unceasing vulnerability. This situation exhibits the bitterest of historical ironies. Israel, an ancient nation that was in-gathered in mid-20th century expressly to prevent another genocide, is still targeted for a "Final Solution."
After the London Charter (1945) and the Nuremberg Trial judgments (1946), genocide-prevention has been a codified matter of law. And in law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Significantly, an effectively second Holocaust could be unleashed, in whole, or in part, by nuclear and/or biological attacks upon Israel. In preparing to launch such attacks, determined enemy states such as Iran could be aided, however unwittingly, by more or less simultaneous Palestinian movements toward a "Two-State Solution," and by an already generalizing expansion of regional chaos.
For Israel, the more-or-less conspicuous perils from Iran, "Palestine," and Iraq/Syria, are never really separate, or unconnected. Rather, these substantial dangers are intersecting, inter-penetrating, and sometimes mutually reinforcing. In more narrowly military parlance, they could best be described, vis-à-vis one another, as "force-multipliers."
This critical linkage has yet to be fully understood. Using a biological or chemical analogy for clarification, Iranian nuclearization, Palestinian statehood, and expanding Sunni-Shiite warfare could display destabilizing "synergies." Israel's survival could then become exponentially more problematic than if the Jewish State had "only" to deal singly with one or another of these identified existential threats, or if these threats were merely "additive." Here, in the world of international statecraft - a world which is not geometry - the whole (existential security threat to Israel) may be greater than the simple sum of its parts.
“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, suitable force or threats of force may be required. Often, such expressions of force have been 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 plainly, at Article 51 of the UN Charter, and also in multiple clarifications of what is more formally called "anticipatory self-defense."
In law, Israel  has every available right to forcibly confront all expected existential harms. The problem is that although any such confrontation could be fully lawful, it would not necessarily be successful. After all, any specific national military posture could be perfectly legal, but still remain ineffectual.
What is to be done?
On the Palestinian front, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has 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. In fact, any post-independence abrogation of earlier pre-state agreements to demilitarize, once announced by a now-sovereign Palestinian state, could prove incontestable under international law.
Iran is a determinedly frontline Islamic state, one with a plausibly near-term potential to inflict even nuclear harms upon Israel. The “international community” has done nothing to meaningfully impede Iranian nuclearization. Nothing at all. To be sure, once-heralded “economic sanctions” have caused ordinary Iranians considerable economic pain and discomfort, but they have not tangibly slowed the developmental pace of that country's nuclear weapons program.
Not at all.
What about  the United States? If President Barack Obama’s explicit wish for “a world free of nuclear weapons” were ever  taken seriously, even as a carefully crafted end-run toward some sort of Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Israel wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, of course, this American presidential preference is not only prima facie foolish, it is also flagrantly unrealistic and destined to fail.
For operational and political reasons, an eleventh-hour Israeli preemption against Iranian nuclear infrastructures is now very unlikely. For the foreseeable future, at least, Israel will need to enhance its nuclear deterrence posture toward Iran. As part of any such enhancement, Jerusalem could retain some added deterrence benefit by initially maintaining its still-undeclared "bomb in the basement."
Over time, however, it is also plausible 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 major first-strike aggressions, with an "assuredly-destructive" reprisal. Moreover, in some respects, certain sub-state terror groups that already function as large armies (e.g., Hezbollah, ISIS) will also need to be deterred.
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 state enemies' active (ballistic missile) defenses.
Sometimes, especially in stubbornly complex matters of military strategy, truth may be counter-intuitive. Expected "usability," for example, may vary inversely with expected yields of destructiveness. This means, ironically, that any enemy perceptions of a too-large or too-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons capability could  impair rather than enhance Israel's essential nuclear deterrent.
The "Road Map," or Middle East Peace Process, will not save Israel. Expanding previous economic sanctions against Iran will not save Israel. Once Iran had begun a countdown-to-launch of its new nuclear weapons against Israel, Barack Obama's only possible assistance would be to help with the mass burial of Israel's myriad dead. And before even this post-catastrophe "remedy" could be applied, entire Israeli cities would first need to be transformed into giant cemeteries.
Israel would become a contemporary necropolis.
To cope with any prospective harms issuing from Iran and "Palestine," Israeli planners will need to focus intently upon diminishing both of these general 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 produce: (1) a somewhat benign Palestinian state, rejecting any irredentist ambitions, without any delegated sovereign-authority over Jerusalem, and within still-manageable borders for Israel; and (2) a very slowly nuclearizing Iran, one that remained entirely rational in all pertinent decisional matters of war and peace, and correspondingly still 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 legal and strategic reasons, Netanyahu's declared policy contingencies notwithstanding, no such demilitarization measures could actually be taken seriously.
In limiting the expected harms of a nuclear Iran, Israel would further enhance the credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture. This could be done, incrementally, and in part, by now moving cautiously beyond its previous stance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity, or "bomb in the basement,"  and by continuing its corollary improvements of ballistic missile defense, especially the Arrow.
Additionally, certain "chaotic" battles already underway in Iraq and Syria could, respectively and synergistically, enlarge prospective harms to Israel already originating from "Palestine" and Iran.  The civil war still underway and unhindered in Syria - and now intersecting/fusing with invading Sunni ISIS movements in Iraq - could impact Damascus' long-time alliance support for Tehran. This impact could create a decisive effect upon Iran's yet-undetermined willingness to challenge Israel with nuclear weapons.
For Israel, the Middle East has always been a bad neighborhood. Soon, it is apt to get much worse. To know precisely what must be done, Jerusalem must first acknowledge that any eventual success or victory will call for vastly improved forms of strategic thinking in Tel Aviv.
More than anything else, these enhanced forms of analysis will require Israeli planners to ascertain and understand the now-underlying "geometry of chaos" in the region. In the final analysis, saving Israel must be an intellectual task, even more than a political one.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on issues concerning international relations and international law, especially war and terrorism in the Middle East.  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.