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Op-Ed: From Athens to Jerusalem: A Journey in Strategic Wisdom

For Israel, nuclear weapons and doctrine are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.
Published: Wednesday, June 04, 2014 11:57 PM


Special to Arutz Sheva

When Pericles delivered his Funeral Oration in 431 BCE, the same year as the start of the Peloponnesian War, his oratorical perspective was plainly strategic. As recorded by Thucydides, an early Greek historian whose dominant focus was on a better understanding of military power, Pericles' speech acknowledged that Athenian security must forever remain uncertain.


"What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies," lamented the wise Athenian wartime leader Pericles, "is our own mistakes."
More precisely, his  oft-quoted words expressed a determinedly timeless apprehension: "What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies," lamented the wise wartime leader, "is our own mistakes."   

Contemporary Jerusalem is not ancient Athens. Nonetheless, history is often kaleidoscopic, and despite unimaginable changes in science and technology, the most primal inclinations toward war and peace continue largely unaltered. On complex matters of military strategy, there is always considerable reshuffling and recombination of doctrine, but still no genuinely basic transformation of constituent "parts."

To be sure, Pericles didn't have to concern himself with nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Still, the core principles of offense and defense in warfare have remained pretty much unchanged. Later, Machiavelli  said as much, when, in the Discourses, he reminded his early sixteenth-century readers that both strategic dilemmas and strategic solutions are endlessly repeating themselves: "We ought to consider," commented Machiavelli, that "there is nothing in this world at present, or at any other time, but has and will have its counterpart in antiquity."

Why so? Effectively anticipating Freud during the Italian Renaissance, the prophetic Florentine strategist had answered insightfully: "These things (strategic judgments) are operated by human beings, who, having the same passions in all ages, must necessarily behave uniformly in similar situations."

With appropriate nuance, modern Israel can learn usefully from Pericles, Thucydides, and Machiavelli. The most conspicuous lesson here for Jerusalem must be to avoid strategic self-delusion at all costs. Significantly, in the huge and always pending "opportunity" to commit irremediable strategic mistakes, no prospective national error can loom larger than compromising Israel's indispensable nuclear deterrent.

Always, sometimes with contrived shrieks and screams, the "civilized" world calls upon Israel to embrace a nuclear-free world. Each and every year, in this connection, Jerusalem's most intractable enemies advance high-sounding proposals for a "nuclear-weapons-free-zone" in the Middle East. Just as often, assorted other states in the United Nations call self-righteously upon Israel to become a non-nuclear party to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Why not join? At first glance, all such purportedly jurisprudential proposals sound eminently fair and reasonable. Why, after all, should Tehran be kept by law from "going nuclear," while Jerusalem is simultaneously allowed to proceed unhindered, with its own uniquely "opaque" nuclear weapons and doctrine?

The short answer is that not all nuclear weapons states are the same. In Iran, even the relatively "moderate" Rouhani regime has remained fixedly genocidal toward Israel. Reciprocally, moreover, Israel has made no nuclear threats against Tehran, or, for that matter, against anyone else.

For now, at least, Jerusalem understands the critical importance of "mass" in military strategy, and also its irrefutable geo-strategic corollary for Israel's national survival: Without its nuclear weapons and doctrine, whether more openly disclosed, or still "deliberately ambiguous," the Jewish State's lack of mass will ultimately be fatal. From the very beginning, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had understood the unassailable futility of seeking to protect an eternally beleaguered mini-state with purely conventional forces.

But isn't a denuclearized Israel simply a strategic straw man? Isn't it effectively inconceivable?

Perhaps not.

For one thing, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, argues that nuclear weapons are effectively evil in themselves. On September 24, 2009, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting "a world without nuclear weapons." In response, President Obama then exclaimed confidently: "This resolution enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons."

Naturally, Barack Obama does not speak for Israel. Yet, on December 22, 1995, Israel's Shimon Peres stated publicly: "Give me peace, and we'll give up the atom." Years later, on December 11, 2006, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a similar public nuclear revelation.

Also within Israel itself, a number of the country's leading academic strategists have sometimes argued openly to exchange the country's nuclear weapons for "peace."  I know this to be true. I have debated them myself on the pages of Harvard University’s respected journal, International Security. 

Committing "our own mistakes," had most worried Pericles. Apropos of this enduring or generic worry, Israel must never consent to giving up its nuclear weapons. But, what if anything can still be done about Iran's seemingly unstoppable effort to join the "nuclear club?"

Legally, any resort to an aptly "proportionate" and "discriminate" defensive first-strike - a preemptive attack against Iran's pertinent nuclear infrastructures - might still be permissible. International law, after all, is never a suicide pact. In law, no country is ever obligated to sit back, and wait passively to be attacked. This authoritative argument for "anticipatory self-defense" can be found as far back as the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy),  and has been an integral part of customary international law since the classic case of The Caroline in 1837.

This is no longer, however,  a basically legal or jurisprudential matter. Rather, it is a fundamentally strategic one. And at this very late date, any successful preemption against Iran would be highly improbable. In other words, understood in specifically Periclean terms, attempting such a defensive strike would likely represent a very substantial "own mistake."

Israel may no longer be able to militarily prevent a nuclear Iran, but it can still maximize the essential security benefits of its nuclear forces. With these forces, even if undisclosed, or "ambiguous," or "in the basement," Israel could successfully deter (1) most enemy unconventional attacks; and (2) most large enemy conventional attacks.  Holding such weapons, Israel, when operationally capable, could also reasonably launch certain non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state non-nuclear hard targets.

Without these weapons, any such defensive first strikes would likely represent the onset of a much wider war. After all, there would no longer remain any persuasive threats to the target state of any Israeli counter retaliation.               

Although widely unacknowledged, Israel's nuclear weapons represent a critical impediment to the actual military use of nuclear weapons, and to the commencement of a regional nuclear war. They must, therefore,  remain at the coherent conceptual center of Israel's security policy, and should be guided by a continuously updated and refined national strategic doctrine. Over time, the essential elements of any such doctrine should begin to include an incrementally measured end to "deliberate ambiguity," more recognizable emphases on  "counter value" or counter-city targeting, and fully compelling evidence of secure "triad" nuclear forces. These forces, of course, must also be presumed capable of reliably penetrating any foreseeable aggressor's active defenses.

Israel's presumed efforts at diversified sea-basing (German Dolphin-class submarines) of nuclear retaliatory forces are costly, but prudent. Similarly prudent will be undertaking all measures needed to prepare the Israel Air Force for executing anticipated strikes at increasingly long distances. Whether preemptive, retaliatory, or counter-retaliatory, the IAF now requires, inter alia,  the "full envelope" of air refueling capabilities, upgraded satellite communications,  state-of-the-art  electronic warfare technologies, armaments fully appropriate to inflicting maximum target damage, and latest-generation UAVs to accompany selected missions.

Adequate national security will also demand persistently close attention to cyber-defense, cyber-war, with an unhindered superiority in emerging space technologies and active defenses. In this connection, as Iran continues to move nearer to a full military nuclear capacity, Israel's ballistic missile defenses (Arrow) could become increasingly vital, both to selected areas of "soft-point" or civilian protection, and to protection of the country's "hard-point" nuclear retaliatory forces. This lesser-known second function would be oriented toward safeguarding Israel's nuclear deterrent, and would be practically supportive only to the extent that Iran were able to deploy a more-or-less limited number of offensive nuclear missiles.

None of this is to suggest that nuclear weapons and doctrine are the answer to all of Israel's critical security needs. Not at all. The point is that these weapons and doctrine are utterly indispensable for dealing with a small number of very high-urgency (existential) perils, but not for another and wider range of more customary and conventional security threats.

For Israel, in short, nuclear weapons and doctrine are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.

It is also worth noting that Iranian nuclear threats to Israel could ultimately manifest themselves in certain ways that do not involve ballistic missiles, and that Jerusalem must therefore always be ready to deal capably with these alternate forms of nuclear delivery. A plausible case in point would be the use of container ships or trucks as enemy delivery vehicles, and/or the use of presumptively appropriate terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah.

In any event, it is indisputable that Israel's nuclear weapons and doctrine will be essential going forward; both will need to be configured to the country's best advantage. With this core imperative in mind, and with former Prime Minister Peres' generous public offer of December 22, 1995 notwithstanding, Jerusalem must reaffirm there can never be any purposeful Israeli exchange of "the atom" for "peace."

Never.

Rather, Jerusalem, very consciously recalling Periclean lessons from ancient Athens, must still fear its "own mistakes" even more than the strategies of its enemies.  

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue for forty-three years, he was Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003). Professor Beres is a contributor to such publications as The Jerusalem Post; The AtlanticUS News & World ReportThe Harvard National Security Journal;International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); Special Warfare;Parameters ( U.S. Army War College); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; BESA Perspectives (Israel); The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Herzliya Conference Working PapersHa'aretz;and Israel National News. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.