The Future of Israel's Nuclear Deterrence

Debates about Iran and Palestinian statehood will have an effect on Israel's mode of self-defense.

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Israel remains correctly skeptical about the international community's current talks over Iran's nuclear program. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that any lifting of sanctions would require "concrete, verifiable measures" on Iran's uranium enrichment program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expects any prospective arrangement worked out in Geneva to be "the deal of the century" for Tehran.

In essence, as Netanyahu seemingly understands far better than U.S. President Barack Obama, Iran is certain to continue with its prohibited production of weapons-grade material, suitable for clandestine nuclear weapons manufacturing.

There is more. Israel, still hoping to strike its own deal on "Palestine," recently released another batch of convicted Arab terrorists from its jails. Ironically, Netanyahu, so insightful about the futile U.S. negotiations with Iran, has yet to understand that no Palestinian state would ever consent to peaceful coexistence with Israel. Moreover, Palestine could have a starkly injurious impact on Israel's nuclear deterrence options, and, ultimately, on the shape of war and terror in the Middle East.                      

In the absence of Palestinian statehood, Israel's survival would still require increasing self-reliance in military and defense matters. Any such expanded self-reliance, in turn, would demand: a viable nuclear strategy involving deterrence, preemption and war -fighting capabilities, and a corollary conventional strategy. The actual birth of Palestine, however, would impact these critical strategies in several determinative ways.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

A Palestinian state would make Israel's conventional capabilities more problematic; it could thereby heighten the chances of a regional nuclear war. Although Palestine itself would obviously be non-nuclear, its overall strategic impact could nonetheless be magnified by continuously unfolding and more-or-less unpredictable developments in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Lebanon and elsewhere in this roiling and chaotic area.

A nuclear war could arrive in Israel not only as a "bolt-from-the-blue" surprise missile attack, but also as a result, intended or inadvertent, of escalation. If certain already extant enemy states were to begin conventional or biological attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem might respond, sooner or later, with aptly "proportionate" nuclear reprisals. Or, if these enemy states were to begin their aggressions with conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem's own conventional reprisals might be met, in the future, with enemy nuclear counterstrikes.

For now, this would become possible only if a still-nuclearizing Iran were spared any final forms of Israeli or American preemptive interference, actions appropriately identifiable in law as "anticipatory self-defense." As a preemptive attack against Iran now seems operationally implausible, it is reasonable to assume that a persuasive Israeli conventional deterrent, at least to the extent that it would prevent enemy conventional and/or biological attacks in the first place, could reduce Israel's escalatory exposure to a nuclear war.

Pertinent questions arise. With its implicit ("deliberately ambiguous") nuclear capacities, why should Israel need a conventional deterrent at all? After all, even after Palestinian statehood, wouldn’t all rational enemy states desist from launching any conventional or biological attacks upon Israel out of an entirely sensible fear of Israeli nuclear retaliation? 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Not necessarily. Aware that Israel would cross the nuclear threshold only in very extraordinary circumstances, these enemy states could be convinced – rightly or wrongly – that as long as their attacks remained recognizably non-nuclear, Israel would always respond in kind.

The only credible way for Israel to deter large-scale conventional attacks after the creation of Palestine would be by maintaining visible and large-scale conventional capabilities. Of course, enemy states contemplating any first-strike attacks using chemical or biological weapons are apt to take more seriously Israel's nuclear deterrent, whether newly-disclosed, or still "in the basement." A strong conventional capability is needed by Israel essentially to deter or to preempt conventional attacks, attacks that could, if they were undertaken, lead quickly via escalation to various forms of unconventional war.