Staving off nuclear war in the Middle East
Staving off nuclear war in the Middle East

Rabbi Eleazar quoted Rabbi Hanina, who said: “Scholars build the structure of peace in the world.”- The Babylonian Talmud, Order Zera’im, Tractate Berakoth, IX

Whether one likes to admit it or not, a nuclear war in the Middle East is at least conceivable. For Israel in particular, this is a compelling “truth,” one that warrants an overriding preventive dedication.

Always, such dedication must first manifest itself by way of serious scholarship and underlying erudition.

It’s not bewildering. By definition, no other subject of national concern could possibly justify a comparably serious examination. This means that Israel’s best thinkers and strategic scholars are most responsible for ensuring that virtually every imaginable nuclear war scenario will be systematically delineated and suitably explored.

This recommendation has very distinguished and largely incontestable origins. Recalling philosopher of science Karl Popper’s oft-quoted line borrowed from the classic German poet Novalis, “Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch.”[1]

One core question needs to be asked at the outset: How, more-or-less exactly, might Israel ultimately find itself in some configuration or other of a nuclear war? What, still more exactly, are the identifiable circumstances under which Israel could sometime discover itself involved with actual nuclear weapons use?

For the moment, such proposed concerns could appear baseless. Israel, after all, remains the only presumptive nuclear weapons state in the region. Still, fluid “order-of-battle” considerations could change quickly and unexpectedly, especially in the always unpredictable Middle East and most plausibly in regard to Iran.

Iran will not be easily deflected from its long-term nuclear ambitions. Tehran’s incremental membership in the Nuclear Club remains more than likely within the next several years. This is the case notwithstanding the multilateral 2015 Vienna Iran Agreement and the US unilateral JCPOA withdrawal by President Donald Trump. Even in the absence of any regional nuclear adversary, the Jewish State could find itself having to rely upon nuclear deterrence against certain biological and/or massive conventional threats.

The residual prospect of atomic weapons firings could never be ruled out altogether.

What then? There are four pertinent and intersecting narratives that best "cover the bases" of Israel's obligatory nuclear preparedness: 

Nuclear RetaliationCounter RetaliationPreemption; and  War fighting.[2]

Here is what these four critical scenarios could reveal to responsible and capable scholars:

(1)     Nuclear Retaliation

Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states ever launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent possible and cost-effective, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve certain other forms of unconventional weapons, notably high-lethality biological Weapons of mass destruction, Israel might still launch a nuclear reprisal. This particular response would depend, in large measure, upon Jerusalem's calculated expectations of follow-on aggression and also on its associated assessments of comparative damage-limitation.

If Israel were to absorb "only" a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could still not be ruled out, especially if: (a) the state aggressor(s) were perceived to hold nuclear, and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel's leaders were to believe that exclusively non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out entirely only in those evident circumstances where enemy state aggressions were conventional, and solely hard-target directed (that is, directed only toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, and not at any "soft" 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 expectedly turn to nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then feel pressed to take an appropriate escalatory initiative.

All pertinent decisions would depend upon Jerusalem's early judgments of enemy state intent and on its accompanying 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 move on to nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were plainly "all-out" and directed toward Israeli civilian populations - not just to Israeli military targets - an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be excluded.

It would appear that such a unique counter retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation were entirely proportionate to Israel's preemption, confined exclusively to Israeli military targets, circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity" (a limit routinely codified in the law of armed conflict),[3]and accompanied by various explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

(3)     Nuclear Preemption

It is  implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would be perfectly rational, it is correspondingly unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such “all or nothing” circumstances.This form of preemption would represent a flagrantly serious violation of binding international rules.

The psychological/political impact on the world community would be negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only where (a) Israel's state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) these enemies had made it clear that their military intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) these enemies were believed ready to begin an active "countdown to launch;" and (d) Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels consistent with physical preservation of the state..

(4)     Nuclear War fighting

Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into an actual conflict between Israel and its enemies, nuclear war fighting would ensue. This would be true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Jerusalem's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Jerusalem's nuclear counter retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy adversarial second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter retaliatory capability.

It follows that in order to satisfy its essential survival requirements, Israel must take immediate and reliable steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

In absolutely all cases, Israel's nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented toward deterrence and never to actual war fighting or revenge. 

These four considered scenarios should remind Israel of the overriding need for coherent nuclear strategy and theory., The IDF would be well-advised to continue with its sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of its nuclear deterrent force. To satisfy the equally important requirements of “penetration-capability,” Tel-Aviv will have to stay conspicuously well ahead of foreseeable enemy air defense refinements.

Rather soon, Jerusalem will need to consider a partial and possibly sequenced end to its historic policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." By selectively beginning to remove the "bomb" from Israel’s metaphoric "basement," national planners would be better positioned to enhance the credibility of their country's nuclear deterrence posture.

But something more will always be necessary.

Always, in Israel’s strategic nuclear planning, would-be aggressors, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, must be systematically encouraged to believe that Jerusalem has the required willingness to launch measured nuclear forces in retaliation and that these nuclear forces are sufficiently invulnerable to any-contemplated first-strike attacks. Additionally, these enemies must be made to expect that Israel's designated nuclear forces would reliably penetrate all their already-deployed ballistic-missile and related air defenses.

Israel could benefit substantially from releasing at least certain broad outlines of its strategic configurations..

Released information could support the perceived utility and security of Israel's nuclear retaliatory forces.

Israel will need to prepare differently for an expectedly rational nuclear adversary than for an expectedly irrational one. In such unprecedented circumstances, national decision-makers in Jerusalem would need to distinguish precisely and meaningfully between genuine enemy irrationality and pretended or feigned enemy irrationality. Israel would need to take account of whether principal adversaries were (1) fully or partially sovereign states; (2) sub-national terrorist groups; or (3) “hybrid” enemies comprised of assorted state and sub-state foes.

And the only rational way for Israel to effectively meet all these growing challenges will be to stay well ahead of its adversaries through the indispensable power of erudition and scholarship. Long ago, in classical Greece and Macedonia, the linked arts of war and deterrence were already described by military planners as challenges of “mind over mind,” and not merely contests of “mind over matter.” For Israel, such ancient descriptions remain even more valid today.

Before Israel can successfully satisfy its most primary security and survival obligations, the country’s capable scholars must assume increasing intellectual responsibility for meeting the challenges of “mind.” Most importantly, this means carrying on a coherent strategic “conversation” that goes significantly beyond plainly partisan observations. In the final analysis, Israel’s security situation must never be allowed to become a compromised consequence of bickering between various competing parties or interests.

It must emerge as the optimal outcome of disciplined and dispassionate strategic scholarship.

Professor Louis Rene Beres  was born in Zurich, Switzerland and educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with Israel’s nuclear strategy. For over forty years, he has lectured on this topic at senior Israeli and United States military institutions and at leading Israeli centers for strategic studies. Dr. Beres’ twelfth and most recent book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016. (2nd ed. 2018)