Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Staying Strong

Enhancing Israel’s essential strategic options.
Published: Monday, September 01, 2014 12:54 PM

In early 2014, Washington and Moscow competed openly for influence in Egypt: Putin even promised expansive arms packages to now-President Sisi. With this in mind, Sisi is apt to play the U.S. and Russia off against each other, a cold war strategy that has implications for Israel’s security doctrine, including perhaps its nuclear doctrine.(1)

Israel operates within a global system(2) that appears to be falling back into some form of earlier bipolarity. This inchoate era may even devolve into a cold warbetween the US and Russia.(3) Jerusalem should consider this developing power shift in setting its nuclear policy.(4) Hardening bipolarity could lessen anarchy (good),(5) but also increase levels of adversity (bad). Jerusalem and Washington, inter alia, may need to recalculate certain nuclear posture policies with Moscow’s actions more in mind.

Since its inception, Israel’s central war-fighting tenet has been that any national war must be fought and won quickly. Today, avoiding protracted war is more urgent than ever as the correlation of forces(6) in the Middle East could become increasingly unfavorable to Israel – the result of a steady confluence of several intersecting factors, most notably enemy rocket proliferation, inconclusive regional fragmentations, and uninterrupted Iranian nuclearization. Israel’s nuclear forces and strategy must soon begin to assume expanded importance, not for actual combat,(7) but rather for stable and reliable deterrence.(8)

This shift raises two questions: Should Israeli nuclear weapons and strategy remain undeclared or ambiguous? Could some nuclear disclosure compensate for Israel’s lack of mass?

Israel’s Nuclear Deterrent: Historical Development

In the 1950s, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion fixed certain ultimate hopes of national survival on developing Israeli nuclear weapons and doctrine. His rationale was simple: he reasoned that merely having nuclear weapons would likely deter at least those enemies who could employ weapons of mass destruction or large-scale conventional arms. Ben-Gurion’s successors have adhered, more-or-less openly, to this line of strategic reasoning.(9)

The “bomb in the basement” strategy made evident sense at the time: strategists believed Jerusalem did not need to be more explicit because everyone knew that Israel had nuclear weapons.

Enemy perceptions of Israel’s nuclear capacity that are too general do not necessarily create credible nuclear deterrence and may even undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence. For example, if Israel’s enemies believe it holds only very high-yield/strategic nuclear forces, they may reasonably doubt whether Israel would always be willing to activate such forces to retaliate against an enemy’s first-strike. Ironically, there could be an inverse relationship between Israel’s perceived nuclear capability and its deterrent credibility.

Nonetheless, deliberate ambiguity(10) has endured as the invariable core of Israel’s nuclear doctrine. Ignoring the potentially lethal deterrence shortcomings of any such opacity, Jerusalem seemingly remains convinced that removing the bomb from Israel’s basement – ending the deliberate ambiguity policy – could prompt widespread and corrosive global condemnation. These concerns are valid, but they pale in significance to the costs of any failure of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

In the world of Israeli nuclear strategy, it is not sufficient for enemy states to acknowledge Israel’s nuclear status; they must also believe that Israel has usable nuclear weapons that it is willing to employ in specific threat situations.

Israel’s Non-Nuclear Defenses

Israel needs nuclear weapons.(11) It may not possess adequate landmass or conventional armed forces to prevail in a protracted conflict. As Carl von Clausewitz famously said in On War, there could come a military tipping point when mass counts. At such point, Israel would require adequate strategic substitutes for the strategic depth it lacks due to its small size and population (Israel is half the size of America’s Lake Michigan).

Israel faces specific, tangible risks from any proposed denuclearization. This is in part because the country’s regional adversaries may be joined by: A new enemy Arab state of Palestine(12) and/or a newly-nuclear enemy Iran.(13) Together, these three groups of risks could create conditions more harmful to Israel than the sum of the separate threats. Without its nuclear weapons, Israel could not credibly threaten to retaliate against such a hazard.(14)

However, even possessing nuclear weapons cannot necessarily ensure successful Israeli deterrence – its enemies must also believe that the Jewish state can and will employ them. Carefully ending deliberate ambiguity by providing limited information about its weapons and its strategic posture could therefore improve and sustain Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Skeptics argue that Israel’s nuclear ambiguity has thus far kept the country’s enemies from mounting authentically existential aggressions. Why rock the boat? Won’t Israel’s strategic future merely replicate the country’s strategic past?(15)

Even if Israel’s enemies remain non-nuclear, they could still carry out lethal assaults against the Jewish State, particularly if they work in concert with insurgent proxies. Speaking in late January, 2014, Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of the IDF Intelligence, indicated that 170,000 rockets are already pointed at Israel.

These are staggering, and sobering, numbers. In any joint military attack, Israel’s enemies would have superior mass.(16) To counter even certain non-nuclear threats, Israel could need to better exploit its nuclear deterrence.

Israel protects itself by implicit and explicit threats to retaliate, and by inter-penetrating elements of national defense. Specifically, its ballistic missile defense system (primarily the Arrow or “Hetz“) is designed to protect soft targets as well as the country’s indispensable nuclear retaliatory forces and infrastructure. No BMD system is perfectly leak proof, however, and even a single nuclear missile that penetrates Arrow defenses could potentially kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Israel could mitigate this threat by diminishing its traditional reliance on deliberate ambiguity.(17)

Deterring Iran

In order to deter a newly-nuclear Iran, Israel must show that its own nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable and capable of penetrating Iranian defenses. Iran’s judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend largely on its own prior knowledge of Israel’s weapons, including how effective and well protected they are.

Oddly, if Israeli nuclear weapons appear too large and too powerful, this could actually weaken Israel’s nuclear posture. If Iran knows only of presumptively mega-destructive Israeli nuclear weapons – those that could reach thresholds of destructiveness beyond which no retaliatory threat appears credible – this misperception could effectively undermine the credibility of Israel’s core nuclear deterrent. In this scenario, Israel would benefit from certain limited and residual forms of expanded nuclear disclosure. This would mean slowly, purposefully, bringing Israel’s bomb out of the basement.(18)

A fully nuclear Iran now appears to be a fait accompli. The international community, Israel and the United States all have not displayed sufficient willingness to support preemption when such anticipatory self-defense(19) might still have been plausible.

At some point, a nuclear Iran might decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah or another terrorist group. To prevent this, Israel would need to convince Iran that it possesses a range of viable nuclear options, as well as the will and capacity to retaliate against any Iranian-supported nuclear aggression. Accordingly, Israeli leadership must determine the exact extent to which it should reveal elements of its nuclear positions, intentions, and capabilities. To ensure that its nuclear forces appear sufficiently usable, invulnerable, and capable of penetrating the defenses of all prospective attackers, Israel should prepare to selectively release broad outlines of strategic information, including the hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing, and yields of certain Israeli nuclear forces. Deploying these pieces of pertinent information at the proper moment could strengthen Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

Israel has probably adopted a counter-city or counter-value nuclear targeting policy. Under this policy, the nation targets an enemy’s population and certain noncombatant infrastructures. Although seemingly more aggressive than a counter-force or counter-military targeting posture, it is apt to reduce the probability of any nuclear engagement. Counter-city/counter-value policy should be communicated to Israel’s enemies in advance to put them on notice.

This strategy is unlikely to help Israel succeed against an irrational enemy,(20) however, that does not value its national survival more highly than any alternative preference or combination of preferences.(21)

As a last resort, Israel might also consider the Samson Option,(22) wherein it would signal that it is prepared to do whatever it takes to survive by threatening massive nuclear retaliation against certain enemy aggressions. Such a policy could be invoked credibly only when the aggression would plainly pose an existential threat to Israel’s physical existence and involve more destructive and high-yield nuclear weapons than might otherwise be thought usable for deterrence.

Israel could better exploit the benefits of a Samson Option by selectively ending its nuclear ambiguity. By emphasizing that it is committed to using its high-end weapons in some circumstances, for example, Israel could communicate to its enemies the viability of its full arsenal.

The time to begin such an end has not yet arrived. Israel’s overriding security objective is to seek stable nuclear deterrence at the lowest risk of military conflict. But, at the moment that Iran is verifiably presumed to cross the critical nuclear threshold, Israel should remove the bomb from the basement. Importantly, by the time this particularly urgent moment arrives, Israel should already have configured its planned reallocation of nuclear weapons assets and the measurable extent to which this up-to-date configuration should now be disclosed. This advance planning could enhance the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrence.(23)

U.S. President Barack Obama believes that nuclear weapons are inherently undesirable and destabilizing, and favors “a world free of nuclear weapons.”(24) Yet, there are obviously times when these most powerful weapons can suitably help preserve peace and prevent war. To understand this conceptually, we must first understand the differences between violence and power.

Machiavelli’s The Discourses advances the principle of an economy of violence, here, of course, on a more basic, interpersonal level: “For it is the man who uses violence to spoil things, not the man who uses it to mend them, that is blameworthy.”(25) Israel’s nuclear weapons can still be structured as a more effective deterrent for the prevention of large-scale war, including nuclear war. If shaped by a proper and comprehensive doctrine going forward,(26) including a properly calculated termination of deliberate ambiguity, these weapons could serve to mend the increasingly dangerous military cleavages between Israel and some of its enemies.

*Dr. Louis René Beres (PhD, Princeton) is a Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. This article also appears in the HARVARD NATIONAL SECURITY JOURNAL, Harvard Law School.


1. Both Russia and the United States are focused upon security threats from an effectively common enemy, that is, Islamic radicalism. Recognizing this, Egyptian President Sisi is apt to exploit this joint `superpower’ concern by playing off one side against the other, in his inevitable search for increased foreign aid and military assistance.

2. From an international law perspective, this fundamentally anarchic system has its origins in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119.

3. See: Louis René Beres, “Israeli Strategy in the Case of a New Cold War,” The Jerusalem Post, March 5, 2014.

4. In this connection, Israeli planners should once again consult Clausewitz, On War (1812), especially his call for “audacity” in conflict. Although obviously not susceptible to any forms of precise measurement, this quality could still make an important difference for Israeli strategy going forward.

5. See: Louis René Beres, “What Rough Beast? Israel, Anarchy, and the Shape of Chaos,” The Jerusalem Post, July 3, 2013.

6. See, on this issue: Louis René Beres, “Understanding the `Correlation of Forces’ in the Middle East: Israel’s Urgent Strategic Imperative,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. IV, No. 1, 2010 (pp. 77-88).

7. The Israeli imperative to avoid nuclear war-fighting wherever possible was a major conclusion of the Final report of Project Daniel, Israel’s Strategic Future, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR (Israel), May 2004, 64pp. See also: Louis René Beres, “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp. 491-514.

8. On this requirement, see: Louis René Beres and Isaac Ben-Israel (Major-General/Res./IDF), “The Limits of Deterrence,” The Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Louis René Beres and Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” The Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Louis René Beres and Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Attack,” The Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

9. At the same time, all of Israel’s prime ministers have adhered to a posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity with regard to any and all pertinent details. This posture is sometimes known as nuclear opacity, or, in Hebrew, amimut. See, on this point, Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller, “Bringing Israel’s Bomb out of the Basement,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010.

10. See Louis René Beres, “Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East,” Herzliya Conference Policy Paper, Herzliya Conference, March 11-14, 2013 (IDC Herzliya, Israel).

11. For a partially contra view, however, see Zeev Maoz, “The Mixed Blessing of Israel’s Nuclear Policy,” International Security (Harvard), Vol. 28, No.2., Fall 2003, pp. 44-77. For my response to Maoz in the same journal, see: Louis René Beres and Zeev Maoz, “Israel and the Bomb: A Dialogue,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1., Summer 2004, pp. 1-4.

12. There are vital legal as well as strategic aspects to the Oslo Agreements, which could still be the effective jurisprudential foundation of any new Palestinian state. For an early consideration of these legal aspects, see: Louis René Beres, “The Oslo Agreements in International Law, Natural Law, and World Politics,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 14, No. 3., 1997, pp. 715-746, and Louis René Beres, “Why the Oslo Accords Should be Abrogated by Israel,” American University Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 12, No. 2,.1997, pp. 267-284. A particularly urgent legal problem with Palestinian statehood remains the naive expectation of Palestinian “demilitarization.” On this specific issue, see Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 28, No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

13. See Louis René Beres, “Like Two Scorpions in a Bottle: Could Israel and a Nuclear Iran Coexist in the Middle East?” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 1., 2014, pp. 23-32.

14. In narrowly jurisprudential terms, Jerusalem would need to identify all such threats as an expression of self-defense (which could be lawful and law-enforcing), rather than as a reprisal (which in all cases, would not be legally permissible). For authoritative international law clarifications, see: Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, G.A. Res. 2625 (XXV), U.N. GAOR, 25th Sess., Supp. No. 28, U.N. Doc. A/8028, at 121 (Oct. 24, 1970)(“States have a duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force.”).

15. For a discussion of those who make this counter-argument, see Cohen and Miller, op. cit., “Bringing Israel’s Bomb Out of the Basement: Has Nuclear Ambiguity Outlived Its Shelf Life?” Cohen and Miller themselves make an argument for ending nuclear opacity, but their argument has nothing to do with enhancing Israel’s nuclear deterrent. On the contrary, its particular rationale is to encourage Jerusalem to join cooperatively in the global nonproliferation regime, and to keep the Government’s faith with Israeli democracy.

16. On the related issue of “strategic depth,” see, for example, Brig-GEN. Michael Herzog (IDF/ret.), “Minding the Gap: Territorial Issues in Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking,” available at   http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus116.pdf.

17. Inevitably, it would be better for Israel to successfully deter any nuclear attack on its territory and populations than to intercept incoming missiles once deterrence had already failed. With this in mind, and with the essential understanding that national deterrence and defense needs are mutually reinforcing – not mutually exclusive – Israel should continue with its documented progress on Arrow and related interception systems. For more on the usually-underreported function of ballistic missile defense in protecting Israel’s nuclear deterrent forces (that is, in hard target protection), see  Louis René Beres and Lt. General Thomas McInerney (USAF/ret.), “After Years of Delay, What Can Israel Do About Iran,” Israel National News, October 13, 2013.

18. For a very early treatment of this issue, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1986), 243 pp.

19. In law, the customary right of anticipatory self-defense has its modern origins in the Caroline incident, which concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule – a rebellion that aroused sympathy and support in the American border states. Following this landmark case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been taken as sufficient justification for an appropriate defensive action. In an exchange of notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require a prior attack. Here, a military response to a military threat was judged permissible, so long as the danger posed was presumed “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

20. See: Louis René Beres, “Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall/Winter 2013, Vol. XX, Issue 1., pp. 17-30.

21. Under international law, a permissible preemption would be known as “anticipatory self-defense.” For more strategic (rather than jurisprudential) aspects of any such defensive first strike by Israel, see: Louis René Beres, and Major-General/Res./IDF Isaac Ben-Israel, “Think Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007.

22. See Louis René Beres, “Israel and Samson: Biblical Lessons for Israel’s Strategy in the Nuclear Age,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 1, No.3., July 2005, pp. 491-503.

23. See, also, Professor Beres and General Chain, “Living with Iran,” available at http://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Loius-Rene-Beres-and-General-John-T-Chain-Living-with-Iran-PP249-May-28.pdf.

24. See Louis René Beres and (Lt. Gen/Ret./USAF) Thomas G. McInerney, “Obama’s Inconceivable, Undesirable, Nuclear-Free Dream,” U.S. News & World Report, August 29, 2013.

25. Niccolo Machiavelli joined Aristotle’s plan for a more scientific study of politics with certain assumptions of power politics, or realpolitik. His most well-known conclusion underscores the dilemma of seeking to practice goodness in a generally evil world: “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.” (See: The Prince, Chapter XV). Machiavelli proceeds to construct his political theory on the assumption that “all men are potential criminals, and always ready to realize their evil intentions whenever they are free to do so.” This is a theory that Israel’s principal strategic decision-makers should now consider very closely.

26. In this connection, see: Louis René Beres, “Why Israel Must be Self-Reliant,” The Washington Times, March 28, 2014.