Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Rethink Its Nuclear Ambiguity

Facing the growing threat of a nuclear Iran, Israel must be less coy about its own nuclear capabilities.

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History, however, reveals that conventional wisdom is often incorrect. The strategic issues for Israel are not at all simple or straightforward. Instead, in the necessarily arcane world of Israel's nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states simply acknowledge the Jewish state's nuclear status. Instead, it is important, inter alia, that these states will believe that Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would also be willing to employ these usable weapons in certain clear, and situationally identifiable, circumstances.

Current instabilities in the Middle East create good reasons to doubt that Israel would benefit from the continuance of its deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Prime Minister Netanyahu's inner cabinet, that Israel's pertinent leadership now understands such informed skepticism.

Israel is imperiled by existential threats that fully justify its nuclear weapons, and that require a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. This utterly basic need exists beyond any reasonable doubt. Without such weapons and doctrine, Israel could not survive over time, especially if certain neighboring regimes should soon become more adversarial, more Jihadist, and/or less risk-averse. Incontestably, nuclear weapons and a purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove vital to various predictable scenarios requiring preemptive action or retaliation.

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Typically, military doctrine describes how national forces would fight in various combat operations. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Though generally unrecognized, the full importance of doctrine lies not only in the ways that it can animate and unify military forces, but also in the particular fashion that it can transmit certain desired "messages." In other words, doctrine can serve a state as a critical form of communication, to both its friends and foes.

Israel can benefit from such broadened understandings of doctrine. The principal risks facing Israel are more specific than merely general or generic. This is because Israel's extant adversaries in the region will likely be joined by: (1) a new Arab state of "Palestine;" and by (2) a newly-nuclear Iran.

Still, for Israel, merely having nuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by enemy states, can not automatically ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, although starkly counterintuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the credibility of Israel's nuclear deterrent. With this point in mind, the potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be reduced by making selectively available additional information concerning the security of Israel's nuclear weapon response capabilities.

This crucial information, carefully limited, yet helpfully more explicit, would center on distinctly major and interpenetrating issues of Israeli nuclear capability and decisional willingness.

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Skeptics, no doubt, will disagree. It is, after all, seemingly sensible to assert that nuclear ambiguity has "worked" thus far. While Israel's current nuclear policy has done little to deter multiple conventional terrorist attacks, it has succeeded in keeping the country's enemies, singly or in collaboration, from mounting any authentically existential aggressions.

As the 19th century Prussian strategic theorist Karl von Clausewitz observed in his classic essay, "On War," there inevitably does come a military tipping point when "mass counts." Israel is very small. Its enemies have always had an undeniable advantage in "mass." Perhaps more than any other imperiled state on earth, Israel needs to steer clear of such a tipping point.