Strategies for Israel After Failed American Diplomacy

Israel will have no choice in determining the mindset of its enemies and after the failure of American nuclear diplomacy, it will need to sort through a broad variety of scenarios, and take steps against a now-nearly nuclear Iran.

Prof. Louis René Beres

OpEds Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama strategy of concessionary nuclear negotiations with Iran has failed. Now, above all, Israel will need to reassess certain core assumptions of its national defense planning. Amid palpably expanding regional disorder, the prime minister and his security advisors will need to determine if Tehran can be expected to act "rationally" in vital matters of strategic deterrence.

Among other obligations, therefore, Jerusalem must accurately predict whether the Iranians will consistently value their country's physical survival more highly than any other objective, or whether, at least in some readily identifiable circumstances, they might act according to presumptively sacred doctrines of Shiite theology.[1]

For Israel, going forward, there can be no more indispensable planning task than working through this far-reaching prediction. Simultaneously, Jerusalem will need to evaluate certain steadily growing risks from potentially non-rational terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah and ISIS. These corollary assessments will also have to account for a still-broader regional pattern of sectarian fragmentation, and, conceivably, for an almost-primal chaos. This starkly incendiary pattern could even include unexpected alignments between traditionally enemy states.[2]

To wit, we now already witness possibly strengthening Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia contra ISIS, and, with Egypt, against Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas.

To some extent, reflecting constantly changing configurations of regional power, these unusual partnerships may proceed openly and unhidden.

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." Undoubtedly, Israeli planning imperatives will become more complicated. Soon, in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, there must also be demonstrated a more serious intellectual regard for a third logical possibility. This more opaque prospect concerns the specially bewildering threat of enemy madness, a disorienting hazard that could be exhibited at both national and sub-national (terrorist proxy) levels. Significantly, too, enemy madness could present as a threat from individual states, acting together with certain other states, or from such recognizable  sub-state/sub-national adversaries as ISIS or Hezbollah.

Conceptually,  in all world politics, madness must be distinguished from both rationality and irrationality. Madness, in contrast to these other two decisional dispositions, would signify abandoning any and all consistent rank-orderings of national security preferences. Madness, it follows, could prove to be the most concerning adversarial stance for Israel to confront.

An authentically mad Iranian national leadership, that is, one with a no-longer determinable ordering of preferences, would be more-or-less unpredictable. For Israel, having to face an expectedly mad nuclear adversary in Tehran, could represent the unambiguously worst case scenario. Arguably, however, such a conspicuously fearful narrative, along with its multiple terror-group impediments to Israeli nuclear deterrence, is implausible.[3]

Still, it is conceivable.

In any event, Israel will have no choice in determining the mindset of its enemies. This is true whether these many foes are authoritative national leaders in Tehran, or sub-national terrorist decision-makers in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen. or elsewhere. Obviously, whether enemy decision makers will turn out to be rationalirrational, or mad must lie beyond any source of earthly power of persuasion in Israel. Nonetheless, appropriate predictions will need to be made and acted upon.

Back in 2012,  Meir Dagan, speaking to CBS interviewer Leslie Stahl, stated reassuringly: "The regime in Iran is a very rational one." Then, however, the former Mossad chief was suggesting only that the Iranian regime was not mad; that it could be expected to prudently consider all pertinent decisional consequences. This suggests that Dagan's particular notion of  Iranian rationality resembled the above meaning of irrationality. The Tehran regime, meant Dagan, should simply be expected to weigh the anticipated costs and benefits of all policy alternatives, and to array its expressed preferences within a predictably consistent rank-ordering.

There had been no suggestion, by Dagan, that Iranian leaders would necessarily and consistently value national survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. In other words, Dagan's definition of Iranian rationality fell considerably short of the meaning used here.

Going forward, Israel must protect itself against a prospectively nuclear Iran by refining an appropriate strategy of nuclear deterrence. Among other things, this increasingly complex strategy will need to include interlocking plans for active missile defenses, a willingness to become purposefully "less ambiguous" about certain Israeli nuclear forces and doctrine,[4] and a suitably recognizable policy for expanded sea-basing (submarines) of nuclear forces.[5] But the successful deterrence of an already-nuclear Iranian regime should not be taken for granted. At a minimum, the resultant balance-of-terror might not adequately resemble those once-stable postures of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that had once existed between the Soviet Union and the United States.

There are other significant nuances of meaningful difference. Any such balance would now also have to contend with more complex axes of regional conflict, including certain substantial intersections or interpenetrations of enemy threats.[6] These threats would likely involve both state and sub-state (terrorist) adversaries.

Russia and the United States may now be entering into "Cold War II," a resurrected but still transforming architecture of mutual antagonism...
In at least some of these intersecting conflict relationships, the cumulative interactions could produce negative outcomes that are greater than the simple sum of their respective parts. In more specifically scientific terms, such threatening interactions would be synergistic.[7] The generals, of course, will prefer to call them "force multipliers."

Something else needs to be noted here.  Adversarial notions of Cold War may no longer be purely historic. On the contrary, Russia and the United States may now be entering into "Cold War II," a resurrected but still transforming architecture of mutual antagonism that could have meaningful and partially unseen effects upon regional war and peace.

Chaos represents much more than a merely possible regional declension. It is already an evident fact of life throughout the already-disintegrating Middle East, and parts of North Africa. Today, serious and sudden extensions of this quintessentially corrosive or primordial condition to other sectors of our planet are fully imaginable. Indeed, even with assorted arms control and disarmament visions, including President Obama’s own contrived fantasy of  "a world free of nuclear weapons," it is reasonable to expect, somewhere and sometime, a joining together of mass destruction weapons with irrationality, and/or madness.

Before stability could be born from any such egregiously ominous "fusion," a dedicated gravedigger would need to wield the forceps.

There is more. Current threats to Israel would likely be augmented by any further diplomatic movements toward Palestinian statehood.[8] A Palestinian state - any Palestinian state - would be ruthlessly carved out from the still living body of Israel. By definition, this murderous excision would further diminish the Jewish State's minimal strategic depth.

In partial consequence of "Palestine," Jerusalem could become increasingly dependent upon an overriding strategy of issuing nuclear threats and counter-threats. Moreover, although still widely disregarded and under-reported, a Palestinian state could quickly fall victim to other more capable Arab forces, including ISIS. Such a takeover could follow expectedly persistent expansions of ISIS power to the south of Gaza, in the Egyptian Sinai, and/or an ISIS conquering march west, across Jordan, all the way to vital "Palestinian" boundaries of the West Bank (Judea/Samaria). 

For Israel, any eventual fall of "Palestine" to ISIS could have uniquely injurious outcomes, a conclusion suggesting the odd possibility of future cooperation between Israel and Palestine.

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." It is unlikely that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority could ever fend off a determined attack on Palestine from ISIS. Already, ISIS has begun to exchange fire with Hamas, in Gaza.

From Israel's standpoint, the pertinent dangers are deeply interwoven and  starkly complex. Confronting not only a growing security threat from existing enemy states, but also from the more or less simultaneous appearance of a new Arab enemy state, and from new sub-state Arab Jihadist fighters, Israel could quickly find itself engulfed in (1) mass-casualty terrorism; and/or (2) unconventional war.

Beleaguered  by both Shiite (Hezbollah) and Sunni (ISIS) terror-armies, Jerusalem would fully understand that fighting one set of Jihadist foes could simultaneously help the other. What should be done about this? For Israel, it is not an enviable security dilemma.

Presently, Hezbollah, an Iranian/Syrian surrogate, is moving strategically along the Golan Heights. First launched in early February 2015, this strategic offensive is likely intended to push Sunni rebel forces in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces back toward the Jordanian border. Should it succeed, the effort could enable Hezbollah to extend its frontline with Israel from the Mediterranean coast to the Yarmouk River, on the Syria-Jordan border.

All this could take place while ISIS forces stepped up a carefully constructed assault against Jordan, an aggression, incidentally, potentially more harmful to Palestinian Arab statehood than any actions ever taken or contemplated by Israel.

How shall Israel deter Hezbollah from launching any "carpet" missile attacks upon Israeli civilians -  attacks that could create literally thousands of Israeli casualties? Looking back, it is critically important that Israel had earlier annexed the Golan Heights, and not yielded to ill-advised international pressures to transfer the strategic plateau to Syria. Indeed, if Israel had been "soft" on the Golan, even ISIS fighters, now hideously exploiting anarchy in Syria, could already be swimming comfortably in the Sea of Galilee.

Fortunately, too, Israel's earlier expressions of "anticipatory self-defense" in Iraq and Syria kept nuclear weapons out of the hands of Hezbollah and ISIS. In the absence of Israel's skilled preemptions against nuclear reactors in Iraq (Operation Opera) and Syria (Operation Orchard),Jerusalem might now need to deal imminently with threats of atomic terrorism. In such difficult strategic circumstances, where the enemy is clearly not a constituted state, ordinary deterrent threats of retaliation would almost certainly fail.

Less fortunately, to be sure, the Israeli and American failure to act preemptively against Iranian nuclear infrastructures in a timely fashion suggests a substantially degraded capacity to deter Iran from any future support of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel. To the extent that Iran should remain pre-nuclear or non-nuclear, Israel could still maintain some meaningful ways of preventing such destabilizing support. But once Iran has become operationally nuclear, there will remain little if any pertinent deterrence leverage in Jerusalem.

At that point, by definition, Iranian counter-retaliatory threats could easily become irresistible to a fully rational Israel.

At that point, precisely because Iran had effectively  been allowed to "go nuclear," Tehran would be in an optimal position to deter the deterrer.

Looking ahead, all of these calculations must be understood together with the refractory issues of Palestinian statehood. For Israel, these issues are not separate or discrete from other terror threats, or even from the mega-threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Rather, they are closely intersecting, and also more-or-less mutually reinforcing.   

Jerusalem's persistent willingness to surrender indispensable Israeli lands to sworn enemies, its long-mistaken reluctance to accept once still-timely preemption imperatives, and its periodic terrorist "exchanges" - asymmetrical surrender deals that inevitably generate new episodes of anti-Israel terrorism - may not bring about any direct or conclusive national defeat. Taken together, however, these inter-penetrating and plausibly synergistic policy errors will have a cumulatively weakening effect on Israel, as a state, and as a society.

Whether the eventual result will be one that “merely” impairs the Jewish State's commitment to endure, or one that also opens up the beleaguered country to devastating missile attack, and/or corollary acts of mega- terror, must remain unclear. Regrettably, this lack of clarity is irremediable, and exists because any true rendering of probabilities here could make no genuinely scientific sense. Logically, any definitive probability inferences concerning Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel would have to be extrapolated from past intersections.

Naturally, such intersections do not exist.

Anywhere in science, meaningful probability estimates must be based on the discernible frequency of past events. In the strategic matters currently confronting Israel, most contemplated intersections (state-state; state-sub state; or sub state-sub state) would be unique, or sui generis.

When all is said and done, after the markedly conspicuous failure of American nuclear diplomacy, Israeli defense planners will need to sort through a broad variety of more-or-less credible scenarios, and, correspondingly, take steps to ensure a promisingly viable deterrence posture against a  now-nuclear Iran. Before this unassailably core task can be completed, Jerusalem will first have to render certain prior estimations of enemyrationalityirrationality, and madness. In the final analysis, especially as the preemption option is likely to be taken off the table, alternative configurations of national defense policy will have to be evaluated and fashioned. These imaginative patterns will need to embrace vastly discrepant and interrelated conflict possibilities, in ways that are both manageable and policy-relevant.

Deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post, must remain Israel's security goal. This basic objective of Israel's nuclear forces, whether selectively disclosed, or still "deliberately ambiguous," should remain unchanged. At the same time, Israel will have to succeed amid a steadily expanding threat of Islamist  adversaries, both national and sub-national. Included here will be some recalcitrant foes that are presumably rational, some that are expresslyirrational, and others that are at least conceivably or prospectively mad.[9]

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on war, terrorism, and nuclear security matters.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, and Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003),he is the author of many major books and articles on international relations and international law. Dr. Beres' tenth book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving Amid Chaos, will be published later this year (Rowman and Littlefield). His most recent publications have appeared in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Hill;The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Oxford University Press; and The Atlantic.


[1] On these doctrines, see: Andrew Bostom, "Iran's Final Solution for Israel," National Review Online, February 10, 2012.

[2] On this point, see: Louis René Beres, "Staying Strong: Enhancing Israel's Essential Strategic Options," Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, June 13, 2014.

[3] See Louis René Beres and General (USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?" The Atlantic, 2012. (General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command).

[4] On properly identifying Israel's nuclear disclosure options, see: Louis René Beres, "Israel's Strategic Doctrine: Updating Intelligence Community Responsibilities," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence,Vol. 28., No..1, Spring 2015, pp. 89-104.

[5] On sea-basing 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; also, 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).

[6] See, on this point: Louis René Beres, "Understanding the Correlation of Forces in the Middle East: Israel's Urgent Strategic Imperative," The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. IV, No. 1., (2010).

[7] See Louis René Beres, "Core Synergies in Israel's Strategic Planning: When the Adversarial Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts," Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, June 2, 2015.

[8] See, on this estimation: Louis René Beres, "Converging Enemy Threats to Israel," BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 299, Israel, May 28, 2015.

[9] There are pertinent insights here, from the literary world of theatre: "Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman," inquires Luigi Pirandello in his Henry IV, "with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, and the logic of all your constructions?"