Falling towers/ Jerusalem Athens/ Alexandria Vienna London/ Unreal (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)
Israel must brace itself against intermittent waves of more-or-less orchestrated Palestinian terror. It would first seem sensible, therefore, to orient the country’s national security attention toward most effectively limiting these ongoing and still-anticipated crimes of violence. Nonetheless, terrorism and war are never mutually exclusive, and Jerusalem must also be careful not to deflect any core planning attention from more plainly existential perils.
In essence, authentically core survival dangers stem from a prospectively expanding prospect of regional conflict, involving weapons of mass destruction. Such a daunting and many-sided scenario could involve both state and sub-state adversaries, perhaps in calculated concert with one another. At some point, these fundamentally different types of enemy could collaborate in unorthodox fashion, including even a determined attack on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.
Already, in 1991 and 2014, Dimona came under missile and rocket fire from Iraqi and Hamas aggressions, respectively.
Now, the key question arises: How shall Israel best respond? While pertinent security threats could be intersecting, interpenetrating, or even synergistic, there will still remain a decipherable hierarchy of plausible dangers. Once this particular rank-ordering has been expressly identified, as indeed it must, Israel’s policy planners will then need to ensure that the Jewish state remains situated in an optimal position to control escalation – if need be, from any one level of possible engagement, to any other.
In the more usual strategic military parlance, this means that Jerusalem must always seek to preserve a conspicuously viable posture of escalation dominance.
There is more. As part of this essential preservation process, Israel’s defense officials should consciously ensure that the country’s various “layered” systems of deterrence, defense, preemption, and war-fighting protections are: 1) mutually reinforcing, and 2) simultaneously oriented toward both national and terror-group foes.
These officials must also learn to recognize the myriad and complex or cross-cutting alignments already being forged between Israel’s diverse enemies. For example, at present, Jerusalem might still prefer the proximity of ISIS-related foes in the region, to Syrian and Iranian-supported Hezbollah, backed by Moscow. But this preference could sometime change in short order, especially if the ISIS-brand fighters should begin to more actively vie with Hamas, Fatah, and/or Islamic Jihad terrorists over Jordan and “Palestine.” Further, in rendering all such preference calculations, Jerusalem will also need to take into account the hardening new bipolarity of “Cold War II.”
For the moment, Israel has correctly cast its security lot with Egypt’s General al-Sisi, acting (singly or cooperatively) against Jihadists in the Sinai. Over time, however, there could be yet another change of power in Cairo, and perhaps even at a moment when Egypt had embarked upon acquiring nuclear weapons status.
Then, looking back at the evolution of nuclear weapons development in Shiite Iran, from the Shah to the ayatollahs, Egypt could begin to look very much like “déjà vu all over again.”
For Israel, the overriding security mandate is not hard to figure out. Security planning officials must consistently look in several different strategic directions at once, and to make further and continuous judgments about (1) expected axes of conflict, and (2) corresponding opportunities to create “force multipliers.” These vital judgments, in turn, would involve mutually supportive applications of technology, both for maximizing Israeli deterrent effectiveness, and for ensuring Israel’s indispensable superiority in cyber-defense and cyber-war. IDF and MOD planners are already keenly aware of these responsibilities, and are likely well ahead of Israel’s adversaries on such competitive dimensions of military progress.
What is not altogether certain, inter alia, is that the critical intellectual resources needed to combat existential threats are being directed in suitably existential policy directions. In the final analysis, Israel’s physical survival will demand a substantial triumph of “mind over mind,” not just of “mind over matter.” This notion of a required primacy of intellect in war is not in any way new or contemporary. It was, in fact, already understood by Greek and Macedonian armies more than two thousand years ago.
“In a dark time,” says the American poet, Theodore Roethke, “the eye begins to see.” Today, in threatening an insidiously encroaching “darkness,” the enemy nuclear challenge should be starkly visualized and fully acknowledged in Israel. Israel’s preemption prospects are essentially disappearing, and Jerusalem also understands that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 14 July 2015 (the Iran Pact) was little more than a combined American and European strategic failure.
Every state’s first obligation is the assurance of protection. Always, following Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century founder of modern international law, innocent civilian life must be preserved. From the moment that Iranian leaders first proclaimed their unwavering belief in a Shiite apocalypse, a series of final battles believed to be a sine qua non for transforming the profane “world of war” (Dar al-Harb) into the sacred “world of Islam,” (Dar al-Islam), Jerusalem has had to affirm and confront every conceivable military peril, and, reciprocally, to consider every conceivably purposeful remedy.
Bombs in the basement
Israel should continue to remind the world that nuclear weapons states are not created equal. Israel’s nuclear forces remain deliberately ambiguous and undeclared. This is not for any reasons of legal deception or subterfuge. On the contrary, these “bombs in the basement” have never been brandished in any threatening fashion by Israel’s civilian or military leaders. This non-belligerent national strategic posture is evident, prima facie. It is, therefore, incontestable.
Israel is not Iran. Israel has never called for wiping any other state “off the map.” Israel’s nuclear weapons exist only to protect the Jewish state from certain extraordinary forms of aggression.
Quite literally, these nuclear weapons serve only to prevent another Jewish genocide, and also various corollary crimes against humanity. Should Israel ever yield to intermittently incessant pressures to join the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it might as well sign its own collective death warrant.
Significantly, in authoritative law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Reciprocally, Israel’s nuclear deterrent force would never be used except in defensive reprisal for certain massive enemy first strikes. In practice, this means enemy attacks involving nuclear, and/or particular kinds of biological weapons.
For the time being, none of Israel’s enemies is nuclear, but, of course, this relatively benign status of adversaries could change rapidly. In this connection, the JCPOA will have no meaningful inhibiting effects upon Iranian nuclearization, and its apparent inadequacies could also encourage, perhaps in the somewhat longer-term, certain reciprocal Sunni state nuclearizations.
If the day comes
If, one day, it should actually have to face genuinely nuclear enemies, Shiite and/or Sunni, Israel could then choose to rely upon threatening its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war and destruction, but only insofar as the newly-nuclear enemy state or states, would (1) remain rational; and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate “nuclearly” if attacked with nuclear, and/or other devastating (biological) weapons.
There is something else. The world is already caught up in a second Cold War. This “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States, coinciding with an expanding regional chaos, could (1) effectively “re-test” earlier expressions of superpower nuclear deterrence; and (2) directly impact Israel’s critical power position in the region. The impact on Israeli safety and security of this new era of “bipolarity” could stem from more-or-less unexpected directions, including a potentially devastating diminution or disappearance of U.S. military power from the Middle East.
Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality, or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” an enemy state in this fevered neighborhood could sometime opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, in spite of the Jewish State’s own secure and recognizable nuclear capability. In essence, a Cold War I type of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (a so-called “balance of terror”) might not be reproducible in a proliferating Middle East. This conclusion could be even more distressing if the region should remain in the disconcertingly fevered grip of a steadily expanding chaos.
After any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would probably be launched against the aggressor’s capital city, and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. There could be no ascertainable assurances, in response to this sort of potentially genocidal aggression, that Israel would limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.
What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In that case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this choice would depend largely upon Israel’s own antecedent expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation. Should Israel absorb “only” a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out.
This sobering conclusion is plausible, so long as: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. In this connection, recognizing Israel’s small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably much lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.
Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel could decide to preempt enemy aggression with certain conventional forces. The targeted state’s response would then determine Israel’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake some form or other of nuclear counter-retaliation.
If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also plan a quantum escalatory initiative. This particular sort of escalation dominance could be required for the secure preservation of Israel’s intra-war deterrent.
If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. But if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations, as well as to certain Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be excluded. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity;” and accompanied by explicit and thoroughly verifiable assurances of no further escalation.
It is almost inconceivable that Israel would ever decide to preempt enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While particular circumstances could arise where such a defensive strike would still be completely rational, and also lawful, according to the authoritative 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, it remains improbable that Israel would permit itself to reach such all-or-nothing circumstances. It should also be noted here that Israel has always been meaningfully pledged to the “purity of arms” (Tohar HaNeshek, in Hebrew), and, as corollary, to a very strict compliance with humanitarian international law.
An Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only if: (1) Israel’s enemy or enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish State; (2) this enemy state had been explicit that its genocidal intentions paralleled its capabilities; (3) this state were reliably believed ready to begin a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own national survival.
The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and one or more of the several states that still wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear war fighting could ensue. This would be the case so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.
From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should now take needed steps to ensure the high likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the high unlikelihood of (c) and (d). In any event, it is always in Israel’s cumulative interest to avoid nuclear war fighting, wherever possible.
For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons, and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. The likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors had been allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons with impunity, that is, without eliciting any appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions, or, preferably, any meaningful global treaty impediments.
Should ill-considered enemy nuclear deployments ever be allowed, Israel could conceivably forfeit any once-residual non-nuclear preemption option. Then, its only alternatives to a nuclear preemption would be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to effectively do nothing immediate, thereby basing continued national security on hopefully credible long-term threats of nuclear deterrence. In the final analysis, any such deterrence-based decision would need critical “back-up” by reducing Israel’s traditional posture of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the bomb in the basement), and, inter alia, by further augmenting Israel’s sea-based (submarine) nuclear deterrent.
The situation today
For now, in the midst of what is being called a “Third Intifada,” Israel’s most urgent security threats appear to issue from assorted sources of Arab and Iranian-backed terrorism. Over time, however, these very grievous dangers could pale in comparison to certain threats of enemy WMD attacks, especially regional nuclear aggressions. It follows that Israel must continue to consider every possible means of blunting such overriding threats, including preemption (anticipatory self-defense), deterrence, and ballistic missile defense.
At first glance, such advice may appear banal, and even markedly self-evident. What is unclear, however, and by no means easy, is calculating the complex and nuanced manner in which these three intersecting forms of “remedy” should be configured. In other words, how, precisely, should this focused manner of safety be determined?
For Jerusalem, going forward, that is assuredly the vital question. In all threatening circumstances, Israel must remain focused on unmistakably existential threats, especially those enemy activities that could sometime involve nuclear weapons. Accommodating this recommended focus will be both easy and hard. In war, cautioned Carl von Clausewitz, wisely, “Everything is very simple…..” Still, the Prussian military thinker had then proceeded to observe, in his On War : “Even the simplest thing is difficult.”
At times, strategic truth can emerge through paradox. For Israel, now facing a challenging future of both terrorism and war, these are already such bewildering times. Discovering its most durable metaphor in the distressingly stark dichotomy of civilization and barbarism, Israel must always do whatever is needed to side with the former.
In the end, this necessary alignment will require Israel’s military planners to fashion an illuminating “avant-garde” in strategic thought, a deeply creative orientation that could continually shape evolving military analyses into a dynamic and creative process, not merely into a particular product or result.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News