Dimona nuclear facility
Dimona nuclear facilitymontage

“I learn a science from the soul’s aggressions.” - St. John Perse

The evidence is compelling.

In various parts of the world, including the Middle East, a nuclear war is increasingly plausible. Still, identifying meaningful time frames for any such unprecedented conflict would be problematic. Determining a usable hierarchy of war probabilities would be logically impossible.

These conclusions are drawn from science-based queries. In logic and mathematics, judgments of probability must always be based on the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. Ipso facto, such judgments are indeterminable for circumstances that lack relevant precedent.

A nuclear war – any nuclear war - would be unique or sui generis. By definition, therefore, it would lie beyond any scientific assessments of probability. In the case of small and beleaguered states in world politics, however, best-possible estimations could still prove vital to fashioning viable strategic doctrine. Arguably, such estimations could be indispensable.

For us, Israel is the “case at hand.” For Israel, a country much smaller than America’s Lake Michigan, nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy are utterly integral to national survival, and even unscientific probability judgments could be manifestly “cost effective.” If the nuclear warfare threshold were first crossed elsewhere (e.g., India-Pakistan, Russia-Ukraine-United States or North Korea-United States), the consequences of such seemingly unrelated conflicts would still be broadly international. If this critical threshold were first crossed in the context of a US-Russia nuclear war, the consequences would render all other planetary threats conspicuously moot.

In these matters, history will deserve pride of place. Israel’s “bomb in the basement” goes back to early days of the nation. During the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, understood the need for a dramatic "equalizer" vis-a-vis larger and more populous regional enemies. In essence, “the old man” sought to best secure his country’s existence in a fragile world of continuous anarchy and expanding chaos.

Dimona nuclear reactor circa 1960s
Dimona nuclear reactor circa 1960sNational Security Archive/Flash 90

Ben Gurion recognized that appropriate nuclear assets could be critical to Israel’s survival. Inter alia, for Israeli military strategists, “appropriate” should now signify a nuclear capacity that is not too destructive (i.e., not necessarily oriented to threats of “massive retaliation”) and that is decreasingly ambiguous. Regrettably, few present-day Israeli strategists appear willing to acknowledge this important meaning.

In world politics, no particular category of weapon system is powerful per se. To be genuinely powerful, all weapons of war, even nuclear ones, must be informed by task-suitable strategies and tactics. Always.

A next question arises: How should Israel’s “bomb in the basement” be “refined” (career strategists would say “optimized”)? Whatever answers might be offered, any such query should be considered by Israeli policy planners and decision-makers as a preeminently scientific or intellectual question. Whatever its comprehensive nuclear doctrine, Israel’s security objective should always be deterrence and prevention, not revenge.

There is more. In the atomic era’s “good old days,” a time in the 1950s and 1960s when Americans and Soviets were busily defining a bipolar Cold War nuclear strategy ex nihilo, out of nothing, Israel had nowhere to turn for a history-based policy guidance. What Jerusalem did understand is that nuclear ordnance can succeed only through rationally calibrated policies of intentional non-use. This seemingly paradoxical understanding represented a contemporary reaffirmation of classical Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu in the Art of War: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

Sun-Tzu’s ancient observation is just another way of describing military deterrence in general; that is, as a national security posture by which specified adversaries can be discouraged from striking first. Deterrence only works to the extent that potential aggressors are able to calculate that the expected costs of striking first must exceed expected gains. This form of systematic reasoning relates to almost all violent international conflicts.

To fashion science-based nuclear policies, Israel’s designated adversaries should always be considered rational and ought usually to be nation-states. At times, however, Israel’s adversaries could act irrationally and some could operate in alliance with other enemy states or terror groups. As a foreseeable example, Israel's enemies could include state and/or sub-state foes preparing to target the country’s Dimona nuclear reactor. For the moment, of course, such targeting could be carried out only with non-nuclear weapons.

Unless Israeli analysts were to consider Pakistan as an authentic national foe (implausible, but possible), Israel has no already-nuclear enemies. Yet, as an unstable Islamic state, Pakistan is potentially subject to coup d'état by insidious Jihadist elements and is also closely aligned with Saudi Arabia.[1] And non-Arab Iran[2] leads a widening array of heavily armed Shiite proxies and militias.

Tehran supplies missiles to Yemen's Houthi Shiite army (which previously fired missiles at Saudi cities and now fires at western shipping vessels in the Red Sea), while simultaneously aiding Sunni Hamas. Iran maintains continuously close ties to North Korea, and could become an effectively nuclear adversary even as it remained non-nuclear itself. The most worrisome narrative here is that North Korea would make nuclear threats on Iran’s behalf, an ironic scenario in which an already-nuclear ally becomes the proxy of a not-yet-nuclear partner.

Complexity reigns. Earlier, Iranian missile strikes against assorted ISIS and post-ISIS targets in eastern Syria represented a search for "escalation dominance" in the region. For the first time since the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Tehran used advanced solid fuel ballistic missiles. In the future, such competitive escalations could include actual nuclear warheads, not against insurgent targets but against Israel.

Israel will have to remain intellectually creative and conceptually well-prepared. For nuclear deterrence to work long-term, would-be aggressor states such as Iran would need to be told more rather than less about Israel's nuclear targeting doctrine and about the expected invulnerability/penetration-capability of Israel’s nuclear forces. However unorthodox or counter-intuitive, this means that to best prepare for all plausible attack scenarios, Israel should plan for the incremental replacement of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity" with selective levels of "deliberate nuclear disclosure."[3]

In concert with such core policy challenges and changes, Jerusalem will need to refine its still opaque “Samson Option.” The point of this proposed refinement would not be to “die with the Philistines” (an irrational extrapolation from the biblical Book of Judges), but to enhance specific “high end” options of its nuclear deterrence posture.

Though the only gainful purpose of Israel’s nuclear weapons should be stable deterrence at different levels of military destructiveness, there will inevitably remain circumstances under which nuclear deterrence could fail. How might such intolerable circumstances arise?

Four comprehensive though not mutually exclusive scenarios can be identified for examination. In these policy-oriented scenarios, the term “enemy state” is used because it embraces not only Shiite Iran, Israel’s most conspicuous existential foe, but also includes potentially nuclear Sunni states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In addition, this term could allow variously informed considerations of threats from Pakistan and North Korea.[4]

(1) Nuclear Retaliation

Should an enemy state or alliance of states launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, to the extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other available forms of unconventional ordnance, such as chemical or biological weapons, Israel might decide to launch a nuclear reprisal. This grave decision would depend, in large measure, on Jerusalem's expectations of any follow-on enemy aggressions and its calculations of comparative damage-limitation.

If Israel were ever to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could 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 non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out only in those decipherable circumstances where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, "typical" (that is, consistent with all previous instances of enemy attack in both degree and intent) and hard-target oriented (that is, directed towards Israeli weapons and military infrastructures rather than Israel’s civilian populations).

(2) Nuclear Counter retaliation

If Israel should ever feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state response would largely determine Jerusalem's reciprocal moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would doubtlessly turn to presumptively suitable forms of nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, Israel could feel pressed to take the escalatory initiative. This decision would depend upon Jerusalem's considered judgments of enemy intent and on its corollary calculations of essential damage-limitation.

Should the enemy state response to an Israeli preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that decision-makers would then proceed to nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation was "all-out" and directed toward Israeli civilian populations per se as well as Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be excluded prima facie. Such a counter retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation were identifiably proportionate to Israel's preemption; confined to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of "military necessity;" and accompanied by 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. Though circumstances could conceivably arise wherein such a strike would be perfectly rational and permissible under authoritative international law,[5] it is unlikely that Israel would allow itself to reach such dire circumstances.

Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the world community would be far-reaching. This means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only: (a) where Israel's pertinent state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction; (b) where these enemies had made it clear that their intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) where these enemies were believed ready to begin an operational "countdown to launch;" and (d) where Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve minimum levels of damage-limitation - that is, levels consistent with physical preservation of the Jewish State.

(4) Nuclear War fighting

Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any conflict between Israel and its enemies, either by Israel or by a primary foe such as Iran, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, could 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.

This means that in order to satisfy its most fundamentals survival imperatives, Israel should take appropriate steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

At some point, a nuclear war involving Israel may become more widely imaginable. Israel’s corresponding responsibility should be to prepare prudently and systematically for all contingencies, even when such science-based preparation would appear intolerably expensive, operationally daunting or diplomatically disquieting. Ultimately, Israel’s survival in the nuclear age should be about what ancient Greeks and Macedonians called the primal struggle of "mind over mind.” Always, this would be an intellectual struggle.

For the State of Israel, a country without meaningful strategic depth, the most primal and consequential "battlefield" should always be “mind-centered.” More precisely, if all goes according to science-based strategic planning, there will need to be diligent Israeli considerations of enemy rationality and correlative policy shifts from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to selective nuclear disclosure.

In the final analysis, all problems of nuclear warfare would represent world system manifestations of individual human frailties. For Israel, heeding the poet St. John Perse, it’s already high time to “learn a science from the soul’s aggressions.” Much more than any raw military forces, such learning would represent the surest path to Israel’s survival in a world of continuous anarchy and expanding chaos.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES,born in Zurich at the end of WWII, 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 fifty years at leading universities and academic centers for strategic studies. Dr. Beres' twelfth book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving amid Chaos, was published by Rowman and Littlefield, in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

In December 2016, Professor Beres authored a monograph at Tel-Aviv University (with special postscript by retired USA General Barry McCaffrey), titled Israel's Nuclear Strategy and American National Security. In 2003-2004, he was Chair of Israel’s “Project Daniel” (PM Ariel Sharon).


[1] In Israel, there is an ongoing “debate” on whether to “allow” Saudi Arabia to become a nuclear state. The core difference among Israelis concerns the expected effects on Iran.

[2] There is, however, a small Arab minority in Iran.

[3] See, earlier, by this author: Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). See also: Louis René Beres, "Changing Direction? Updating Israel's Nuclear Doctrine," INSS Israel, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 17, No.3., October 2014, pp. 93-106; and Louis René Beres, Looking Ahead: Revising Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East, Herzliya Conference Policy Paper, Herzliya Conference, March 11-14, 2013, Herzliya, Israel.

[4]Hamas, supported by Iran, has been aided by North Korea in weapons acquisition, tactical guidance systems and military training. Moreover, Hamas is no longer just a viscerally brutal terror organization, but a nascent terror “state of Palestine,” “a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

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