Narratives of Nuclear Warfare in the Middle East

An analysis of Israel's strategic future, with and without rational enemies.

Prof. Louis René Beres

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In part, at least, world politics resembles commercial real estate. It, too, is largely about "location." In world politics, of course, the fixed liabilities of geography can sometimes be counterbalanced or overcome by a variety of other relevant factors, but location will still remain more-or-less critical.

Israel is conspicuously a case in point. Less than half the size of America's Lake Michigan, and still surrounded by uniformly hostile neighbors, this persistently beleaguered country fully understands the stark limitations of location. Facing an assortment of both state and sub-state (terrorist) adversaries, some of which may even come to possess nuclear weapons technologies, the Jewish State will need to fashion a suitably up-to-date defense posture. It will be a daunting task, especially if some of these recalcitrant adversaries no longer conform to the usual rules of rationality in world politics.

How, then, should this complex Israeli posture be best identified?

First, Jerusalem’s nuclear weapons and doctrine must become a more explicitly central part of this posture. From the beginning, Israel's first prime minister had understood the need for an "equalizer" to secure his otherwise too-vulnerable mini-state. Ben-Gurion was correct in this understanding. Although not appreciated by U.S. President Barack Obama, who still seeks a "world free of nuclear weapons," atomic armaments are not inherently bad or undesirable. Indeed, in the absence of its own nuclear assets, Israel would have literally no chance for long term survival.

Here, past is prologue. Going forward, there is no foreseeable way in which Israel could expect to endure without shaping a more nuanced and recognizably functional national nuclear strategy. Among other things, such a strategy would need to signal all prospective state enemies that Israel's nuclear forces are substantially well-protected from enemy first strike aggressions,[1] and that these forces are capable of penetrating these enemies' active defenses.[2]

There is more. Such would-be aggressor states would also need to be told more about Israel's pertinent targeting doctrines, specifically "counter value" (counter-city) versus "counterforce" (nuclear war fighting). More than likely, any enhanced Israeli communications of appropriate strategic information would accompany a prior shift in national doctrine from "deliberate nuclear ambiguity" (the "bomb in the basement") to selected forms of  "nuclear disclosure."

For Israel, there must remain one core consideration. It is that the true purpose of its nuclear weapons must always be deterrence ex ante, not revengeex post. Nonetheless, there are also certain circumstances under which Israeli nuclear deterrence could fail, and where there could then take place some actual belligerent firings of nuclear weapons.

How might these fearfully "centripetal" circumstances occur? Four principal but not mutually exclusive scenarios readily present themselves. Sooner rather than later, Israel's strategic planners should closely study these particular narratives, and prepare to deal with any and all of them. In this connection, the president of the United States, both present and future, should be made aware of these regional possibilities.

(1) Nuclear Retaliation

Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other forms of unconventional weapons, such as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might launch a nuclear reprisal. This would depend, in large measure, upon Jerusalem's expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated calculations of comparative damage-limitation.

If Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could not automatically be ruled out, especially if: (a) the Islamic state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel's leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out only in those circumstances where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, "typical" (that is, consistent with previous instances of Arab/Islamic state attacks in degree and intent) and hard-target directed (that is, plainly directed towards Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, rather than at civilian populations).

(2)  Nuclear Counter retaliation

Should Israel feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s)' response would largely determine Jerusalem's next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would doubtlessly turn to some form of nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, Israel might also feel pressed to take the escalatory initiative. Again, this would depend upon Jerusalem's judgments of enemy state intent, and its calculations of essential damage-limitation.

Should the enemy state response to Israel's preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish State would then move on to any nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were "all-out," and directed toward Israeli civilian populations as well as to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not immediately be ruled out. Such a counter retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation were discernibly proportionate to Israel's preemption; confined to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of "military necessity;" and accompanied by certain explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

(3) Nuclear Preemption

It is highly implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would be perfectly rational, and also permissible under authoritative international law,[3] it is unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach these irremediably dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were usable in a fashion still consistent with longstanding laws of war, this most extreme form of preemption could represent an expressly egregious violation of international law.

Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the entire world community would still be strongly negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could conceivably be expected only: (a) where Israel's pertinent Arab/Islamic state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) where these enemies had made it clear that their actual intentions paralleled their genocidal capabilities; (c) where these enemies were believed ready to actually begin an operational "countdown to launch;" and (d) where Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not achieve the needed minimum levels of damage-limitation - that is, levels consistent with preserving the Jewish State.

(4)  Nuclear War fighting

Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any actual conflict between Israel and its many enemies, either by Israel, or by an Arab/Islamic foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, would ensue. This would hold true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes would not destroy Israel's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy the Jewish State'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 conventional first-strikes would not destroy the enemy's nuclear counter retaliatory capability.

Significantly, this means that in order to satisfy its most essential survival imperatives, Israel must take appropriate steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the corollary unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

There is one last, but assuredly not least, observation on plausible nuclear war fighting scenarios. As the Middle East descends into further chaos, a broad assortment of regional terrorist group alignments and re-alignments can be expected. Inevitably, some if not all of these sub-state organizations will choose to act as surrogates of different national or state armed forces, and not always along seemingly predictable sectarian lines.

Already, Shiite Hezbollah is operating in both Lebanon and Syria against various discrepant foes, while ISIS is competing with Hamas in Gaza, and with Druze fighters, very near the Israeli Golan Heights. In time, moreover, ISIS can be expected to make substantial inroads against both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and, ultimately, to take over any Palestinian state that would be established in West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and Gaza. Oddly enough, even now, neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority (PA) is able to recognize that the principal impediment to a Palestinian state is not Israel, but rather another Sunni band of Arab terrorists.

All this points toward several additional nuclear narratives for the Middle East, one in which certain terror attacks against Israel draw in one or several of Israel's state enemies, and another in which the terror group itself has become more-or-less independently nuclear. In this second scenario, the real danger to Israel would not come in the form of any actual nuclear weapons attack, but rather as a so-called "dirty bomb." By itself, a specifically dirty-bomb variant of nuclear terrorism would pose no authentic hazard of mass destruction. Still, in "synergy" with certain other kinds of attack,[4] both state and sub-state, the cumulative costs to Israel could be considerable.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books, monographs, and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, he has lectured on this topic for almost forty years at senior Israeli military institutions, and also at leading academic centers for Israeli strategic studies. Dr. Beres' tenth book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving amid Chaos, will be published later this year (Rowman and Littlefield). He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.


[1] This raises the increasingly vital deterrence issue for Israel of nuclear sea-basing (submarines). On this issue, see: Louis René Beres and (Admiral/USN/ret.) Leon "Bud" Edney, "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine Basing," The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, "A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel," Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic.

[2] See, on these requirements, Louis René Beres and General (USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, "Living With Iran: Israel's Strategic Imperative," BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 249, May 28, 2014, Israel. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command.

[3] See the 1996 Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, by the U.N.'s International Court of Justice.

[4] One such interactive effect could come from a terrorist rocket attack upon Dimona. Already, there is a history of attempts against this Israeli plutonium-production reactor, both by a state (Iraq) in 1991, and by a terror group (Hamas) in 2014. Neither attack was successful. For more information, see: Bennett Ramberg, "Should Israel Close Dimona? The Radiological Consequences of a Military Strike on Israel's Plutonium-Production Reactor," Arms Control  Today,May 2008, pp.6-13.