Twin perils for Israel: Iranian nuclear weapons and "Palestine"
Twin perils for Israel: Iranian nuclear weapons and "Palestine"

"I think, therefore I am." - René Descartes, Discourse on Method

Although difficult to calibrate or measure, Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian statehood  are likely progressing at roughly the same pace. To be sure, this coincident or near- simultaneous progression is proceeding without any dint of conscious intent or coordinated design. Still, the cumulative security impact upon Israel could sometime prove substantial, even overwhelming.

The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts

World politics is not geometry. Within this most comprehensive sphere of possible human activity, the tangible "whole" of any expected impact could be effectively greater than the simple sum of its myriad "parts." This means, in consideration of any specific Israeli case focus, that such singly unique threats as Iranian nuclear weapons and "Palestine" should also be treated analytically with respect to their foreseeable conjunctions.

Contrary to longstanding conventional wisdom among strategists and military planners, these two converging threats do not present meaningfully separate, discrete or unconnected hazards to Israel. Instead, they portend intersecting, mutually reinforcing and potentially existential perils. Jerusalem, it follows, must do whatever is possible to remove or diminish the correlated dangers on both adversarial fronts, and at more-or-less the same time.

There is more. In this collectively "Cartesian" matter, Israel's extended "being" will be contingent upon prior and markedly capable strategic thinking. "It remains true," says F.E. Adcock in his classic The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1962), "that the highest achievements of the art of war are more to be found in the triumph of mind over mind than in the triumphs of mind over matter." (p. 63) This observation remains true even today, perhaps even especially so, in particular regard to Israeli nuclear deterrence and corollary nuclear war planning.

Active defense and deterrence

For example, among other things, Israel will now need to continuously enhance and fine-tune its conspicuously advanced multilayered active defenses. As long as incoming rocket aggressions from Gaza, 'West Bank', and/or Lebanon (Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah) were to remain conventional, the inevitable "leakage" might still be considered tolerable. But once these rockets were fitted with chemical and/or biological materials, any such porosity could quickly prove  "unacceptable."

Reasonably, when facing Iranian long-range nuclear missiles, Israel's Arrow ballistic missile defense system would require a fully 100% reliability of interception. To achieve any such genuinely optimum level of reliability, however, would simply not be possible. Presently, assuming that Israel's prime minister has already abandoned any once-residual hopes for a cost-effective eleventh-hour preemption against pertinent Iranian nuclear assets - an altogether credible assumption, at this late date - Israeli defense planners must look instead to multiple and overlapping forms of deterrence.

Because of expectedly corrosive interactive effects involving Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood, Israel will need to continuously update and refine its multi-layered strategies of deterrence. In this connection, Israel's political leaders will assuredly have to accept that certain more-or-less identifiable representatives of these prospective enemies might not always satisfy the complex criteria of rational behavior. In such intuitively improbable but still logically conceivable circumstances, various Jihadist adversaries in Palestine, Iran, Lebanon or elsewhere could sometime refuse to back away from expressly contemplated aggressions against Israel, and this in spite of any expectations of starkly destructive retaliations.

Moreover, clearly irrational enemies could sometime exhibit such refusals in duly considered anticipation of a fully devastating Israeli reprisal. By definition, a rational enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a first-strike option by comparing the costs and benefits of each available alternative. Where the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, therefore, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are judged to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail.

In this case, Israel would be faced with enemy attack, whether as a "bolt from the blue," or as the unwelcome outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation.

Sooner rather than later, and facing a new and still-incalculable synergies from Iranian and Palestinian aggressions, Israel will need to take appropriate steps to assure that:

(1) it does not become the object of any non-conventional attacks from these enemies; and

(2) it can successfully deter all possible forms of non-conventional conflict.

Carl von Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812) spoke persuasively of a need for "audacity." Looking ahead,  this intangible quality or strategic trait represents still another key variable for measured consideration by IDF strategic planners.
To meet this ambitious but indispensable goal, Jerusalem, inter alia, must retain its recognizably far-reaching conventional superiority in pertinent weapons and capable manpower, including effective tactical control over the Jordan Valley. This is the case because conventional superiority would almost certainly reduce Israel's explicit reliance upon any forms of nuclear deterrence, a reduction that would enhance its capacity for achieving "escalation dominance" at reassuringly lower levels of belligerent confrontation.

In principle, such conventional superiority retention should reduce the overall likelihood of Israel ever actually having to enter into any chemical, biological, or nuclear exchange with regional adversaries. Correspondingly, Israel should plan to begin moving incrementally beyond its increasingly perilous posture of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity."  By preparing to shift toward prudently selective and partial kinds of "nuclear disclosure" - in other words, by getting ready to take its "bomb" out of the "basement" in carefully controlled phases  - Israel could better ensure that its principal enemies will remain sufficiently subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence.

There is more. In further identifying its "principal enemies," Israel will  not only need to include both state and sub-state adversaries (sometimes in "hybrid" alliance with one another), but also the cumulative intentions and capabilities of each enemy category. Regarding sub-state adversaries (e.g., Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, etc.), Israeli planners must undertake their assessments by offering a more nuanced effort than the traditional group-by-group military evaluation.

States and sub-states

In addition, the sub-state groups being analyzed should be considered and appraised in their entirety, collectively, and as they might sometime interrelate with one another vis-à-vis Israel.

These several hostile sub-state organizations will also need to be considered in their cumulative interactive relationships with certain core enemy states. This last expectation could perhaps best be characterized as a foreseeably essential IDF search for vital synergies between its state and sub-state adversaries.

In proceeding to examine pertinent conflicts between state and sub-state parties, Israel will already understand that there is nothing new about such "asymmetric warfare." Nonetheless, today, and especially in the Middle East, a manifestly crucial asymmetry lies not in particular force structures or force ratios, but rather in any enemy determination or strength of will. In this vein, Carl von Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812) spoke persuasively of a need for "audacity." Looking ahead,  this intangible quality or strategic trait represents still another key variable for measured consideration by IDF strategic planners.

In matters of strategy, operational truth may sometimes emerge through an apparent paradox. Accordingly, Israeli planners may soon have to recognize that the efficacy or credibility of their country's nuclear deterrence posture could sometime vary inversely with enemy views of Israeli nuclear destructiveness. However ironic or counter-intuitive, enemy perceptions of a too-large or too-destructive Israeli nuclear deterrent force, and/or an Israeli force that is not sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks, could sometime undermine this vital deterrence posture.

Also critical, of course, is that Israel's current and expected adversaries will continuously view the Jewish State's nuclear retaliatory forces as "penetration capable." This suggests forces that seem "assuredly capable" of penetrating any Arab or Iranian aggressor's active defenses. Naturally, any new state of Palestine would be non-nuclear itself, but it could still represent a "nuclear danger" to Israel by virtue of its impact upon the more generally regional "correlation of forces."  Thereby, Palestine could represent an indirect but nonetheless markedly serious nuclear threat to Israel.

Both conceptually and operationally, there is more to be done. Israel must continue to strengthen its active defenses, but it must also do everything possible to improve each critical and interpenetrating component of its cumulative deterrence posture. In this bewilderingly complex process of strategic dissuasion, the Israeli task may require more incrementally explicit disclosures of nuclear targeting doctrine, and, correspondingly, a steadily expanding capacity for advanced cyber-defense and cyber-war. Additionally, even before undertaking any such delicately important refinements, Israel will need to more systematically differentiate between its principal adversaries that are presumably rational, irrational, or "mad."

Irrationality and madness are not the same disposition. In the former category, there no longer obtains a preeminent emphasis on collective survival (which is the very basic definition of rationality), but there does still exist a rank-ordered and transitive hierarchy of preferences.

Another Cold War,  synergism and the North Korea factor

Overall, the success of Israel's national deterrence strategies will depend upon an informed prior awareness of enemy preferences, and also of specific enemy hierarchies of preferences. In this connection, altogether new and open-minded attention will need to be focused on the seemingly furious emergence of "Cold War II" between Russia and the United States. This time around, moreover, the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow could prove distinctly helpful rather than adversarial. At the same time, it will be difficult for Jerusalem to fathom the true parameters of Cold War II because this rapidly expanding national rivalry coexists with an American president who may be "beholden" to his Russian counterpart and defer to him in controversies..

There is more. For Jerusalem, it may soon become reasonable to explore whether Cold War II between the present superpowers could turn out to be more strategically gainful for Israel than the original Cold War. Credo quia absurdum. At this seemingly transitional moment in geostrategic time, when Washington is increasingly deferential to Moscow, virtually anything appears possible. For another related issue, traditional Israeli cooperation with the United States could imply, ipso facto, non-traditional Israeli cooperation with Russian geo-strategic interests.

It is essential that Israeli planners approach all prospective enemy threats as potentially interactive or even synergistic. More precisely, if a soon-to-be-formalized state of "Palestine" does not readily find itself in the same ideological orbit as Iran - now a distinctly plausible conclusion, especially in view of steadily stubborn Shiite-Sunni fissions in the Middle East - the net threat to Israel could become still more perilous than what is suggested by the merely additive result of its pertinent regional enemies.

In the interim, Iran will likely push for the creation of a more openly militant state of Palestine, and - once established in presumed conformance with the governing Montevideo Convention - Iran will support a solidly militant stance by the newly established Arab state vis-à-vis Israel. This posture could then prove perplexing for Iran's principal Sunni adversary, Saudi Arabia, which could then decide to back off its historic support for Palestinian statehood and perhaps also its traditional opposition to Israel. Worth mentioning, too, is that a nuclear Iran will plausibly "beget" a nuclear Saudi Arabia, although that rival capacity could take extra time unless Islamabad steps quickly into the relevant knowledge "breech" on behalf of Riyadh.

A final word about inevitable and far-reaching complexity in these matters. In addition to the (already mentioned) ties between North Korea, Palestinian terrorist organizations and Hezbollah, Pyongyang has maintained very close and extended ties with Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, North Korea supplied Tehran with Scud B missiles. North Korea also sold Soviet-made artillery, tanks and trucks to Iran during the 1950s and 1960s.

There is even more detail to this ominous historic connection between North Korea and Iran. Over time, Pyongyang sold Scud B,C, and D extended-range Scuds to Iran, and has played a continuing role in the Islamic Republic's advanced missile development program. North Korea has helped to build the Safir two-stage missile and the Sejil solid fuel missile for Iran; moreover, Iran's Imad and Shihab-3 ballistic missile programs are conspicuously based on North Korea's own Nodong missile ( regarding extended range technologies).

All of this is probably just the tip of the collaborative "iceberg." Iran still relies on parts shipped from North Korea. Without regular assistance from Pyongyang, Iran's liquid fuel ballistic missile program could wither or even disappear. Simultaneously, the Assad regime in Syria, now conducting a literally genocidal war against vulnerable portions of its own beleaguered population, could be effectively deprived of its Scud missile infrastructures.

*   *   *  *

In strategizing about the near simultaneity of Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem must consciously bear in mind that the adversarial whole would be greater than the simple sum of its belligerent parts. But to meaningfully assess this particular and complicated "whole," planners would need to bear in mind the specific form of chaos already evident in today's world and regional politics. To begin, such underlying disorder expresses far more than the relatively benign condition of structural anarchy bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia on 1648. These current forms of chaos are much more primal, more primordial, even more self-propelled and (metaphorically) almost "lascivious."

What Israel faces, therefore, will likely take place less in any traditional "balance-of-power" context than within the near-total "state of nature" described  in William Golding's nightmarish novel, Lord of the Flies. Moreover, this challenging context could be magnified by the regional spread of nuclear weapons, that is, by precisely the sort of "dreadful equality" that 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes identified in Leviathan as a condition wherein the life of man must inevitably become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Going forward in their relevant strategizing, Israel's military planners must assign intellect and learning a distinctly preeminent pride of place. Without granting such an assignment, assorted vital intersections between seemingly disparate threats -  in this case, between Palestinian statehood and Iranian nuclear weapons - will fall short of their much needed evaluations and prognoses. Were this to happen, the cumulative consequences for Israel's national security could quickly lead to previously unimagined tribulations, or perhaps even to "lamentations."


[1] Under pertinent international law, any Palestinian declaration of statehood would need to fulfill certain settled criteria expressly identified at the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) ("The Montevideo Convention") concerning control over a fixed and clearly defined territory; a population; a government; and a capacity to enter into diplomatic and foreign relations.

[2] There are no tangible reasons to assume that US President Donald Trump's December 6, 2017 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital will have any inhibiting impact on subsequent Palestinian declarations of statehood. To the contrary, the ill-timed Trump declaration (which has no wider legal or political authority, and which also resonated negatively among all major American allies) is apt to significantly hasten Palestinian incentives toward full sovereignty.

[3] Regarding the Palestinian statehood "front," it is now important to point out that proposals of Palestinian demilitarization stand little or no chance of actual implementation. For informed arguments explaining these uninspiring odds, 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 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. See also: Louis René Beres, "Implications of a Palestinian State for Israeli Security and Nuclear War: A Jurisprudential Assessment," Dickinson Journal of International Law, Vol. 17, No.2., pp. 229-286.

[4] The reference here is to René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637), which attempts to apply certain mathematical methods of inquiry to virtually all fields of human inquiry.

[5] For this writer's most recent and most comprehensive assessment of these complex issues, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 167 pp (2nd ed., 2018).

[6] Latest 2018 mission tests of the Arrow-3 interceptor have displayed clear advances in Israel's ability to defend itself against current and future threats. Arrow-3 is part of the multi-layered system that Israel is developing to defend against both short- and mid-range rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon, as well as Iran's long-range missiles. It includes Iron Dome, David's Sling, and the Arrow-2 systems. Israel has already deployed Arrow to counter assorted missiles fired from Syria.

[7] See Louis René Beres, "Religious Extremism and International Legal Norms: Perfidy, Preemption and Irrationality," Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3., 2007-2008.

[8] Both Hezbollah and Hamas have direct and close links with North Korea. North Korea almost always condemns Israeli defensive actions against Hamas. Moreover, Hamas has likely turned to North Korean tunnel expertise to improve its own tunnel network in Gaza. North Korea has maintained an elaborate system of tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone with South Korea.

[9] See, on this issue: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, "Think Anticipatory Self-Defense," The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "The Limits of Deterrence," Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iran," Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack," Washington Times, January 27, 2009; and Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, "Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack," The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013. See also: Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?" The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, "Living With Iran," BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014; and Louis René Beres and (Lt.General/USAF/ret.) Thomas McInerney, "Obama's Inconceivable, Undesirable, Nuclear-Free Dream," U.S. News & World Report, August 29, 2013.

[10] Says Sun-Tzu  in The Art of War: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence," See Ch.3., "Planning Offensives."

[11] One has to qualify any reference to "probability" in such circumstances because - in scientific terms - any true assessments of probability must depend upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. Here, of course, there could literally be no pertinent past events.

[12] Actual nuclear-war fighting could never be a desirable strategic option for Israel. This core conclusion represented a major finding of the Final Report of Project Daniel: Israel's Strategic Future, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR, Israel, May 2004, 64 pp. 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. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel; and Louis René Beres, "Israel's Uncertain Strategic Future," Parameters: Journal of the Us Army War College, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1., Spring 2007, pp. 37-54.

[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; Louis René Beres, "Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence," The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. XX, Issue 1., Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 17-30; Louis René Beres, "Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu," Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; Louis René Beres, "Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel's Actions Under International Law," Harvard National Security Journal, 2013; Louis René Beres, "Looking Ahead: Revising Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East," Herzliya Conference presentation, 2013; March 2013; IDC, Herzliya; Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?" The Atlantic, 2012.

[14] On identifying alternative 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, 2015, pp. 1-16.

[15] On Israeli submarine basing measures, see: Louis René Beres and (Admiral/USN/ret.) Leon "Bud" Edney, "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing," The JerusalemPost, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, "A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel," Washington Times, September 5, 2014.

[16] See: 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).

[17] Palestinian statehood could also represent a more directly nuclear danger to Israel because of potentially expanded risks of a conventional attack against Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor. In 1991, and again in 2014, this small reactor came under missile and rocket fire from Iraqi and Hamas aggressions respectively. For an authoritative assessment of these attacks and related risks, 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.

[18] See Ariel Natan Pasko, "North Korea: The Israeli Connection," The Jewish Press, August 16, 2017.

[19] This landmark peace treaty concluded the Thirty Years' War, creating also the "state system." See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two agreements comprise the "Peace of Westphalia."


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books, and several hundred journal articles in the field, including the recent Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy

Professor Beres' shorter opinion articles appear in many leading U.S. and Israeli newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, U.S. News & World Report, Yale Global Online, Arutz Sheva, The Jerusalem Post, and Oxford University Press. In Israel, where his current writings are published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Policy and Strategy, and the Institute for National Security Studies, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003). Dr. Beres' most recent strategy-centered publications were published in BESA Perspectives (Israel), Israel Defense (Israel), The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School), The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv), The Brown Journal of World Affairs, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.