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Has Lapid endorsed a new Israeli nuclear doctrine?

The prime minister implied that Israel’s “other capabilities” may no longer be a last resort.

Prime Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks to party members during a Yesh Atid party conference in Tel Aviv, August 3, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90
Prime Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks to party members during a Yesh Atid party conference in Tel Aviv, August 3, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn
Avigdor Haselkorn

Earlier this month, at a ceremony marking the installation of a new head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made several statements which merit close scrutiny.

He said that Israel’s “operational arena” is “made up of defense capabilities and attack capabilities and what is commonly called in the foreign media ‘other capabilities.’ These other capabilities keep us alive and will keep us alive as long as we and our children are here.”

The use of the term “other capabilities” was universally viewed as a reference to Israel’s reported—but never officially confirmed—nuclear arsenal.

Assuming this presumption is correct, there are two possible interpretations of the prime minister’s statement. First, that Lapid was not delivering a strategic address. He was merely welcoming a new IAEC chief and, in his efforts to enhance the moment, went overboard in accentuating the significance of this position.

However, Israeli government officials should have realized by now that even the most innocent and tangential reference to Israel’s non-conventional capabilities can trigger speculation as to its possible strategic ramifications. This is due to the secrecy surrounding Israel’s nuclear capability and the intense geopolitical hostilities endemic to the Middle East. Any reference to the subject reverberates throughout the region and often the world.

Lapid’s oblique reference to “other capabilities” as a kind of a national life insurance policy could be taken to mean that he sees those capabilities as the ultimate guarantor against an actual existential threat. In this sense, the prime minister’s statement is in line with Israel’s long-standing “bomb-in-the-basement” posture, which sees nuclear weapons as a last resort. Moreover, Lapid’s term in office is coming to an end shortly, and it is unlikely he would or could reconfigure Israel’s long-standing nuclear posture.

However, another explanation for the prime minister’s comments cannot be entirely ruled out. While Lapid mentioned Israel’s “defense capabilities and attack capabilities,” he did not say that they ensure Israel’s survival. He said this only about Israel’s “other capabilities.” In so doing, Lapid effectively downplayed Israel’s conventional capabilities in favor of a de facto posture of nuclear deterrence.

Lapid went on to praise Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for having the “vision” to initiate Israel’s atomic program soon after the state’s establishment in 1948. As a result, he said, “this is what is now in front of me…” This could be taken as a hint that, as far as the prime minister is concerned, the days of the bomb remaining in the basement may be numbered. Lapid may have been trying to imply that, to him, the “other capabilities” are operational rather than theoretical capabilities.

This explanation may be indirectly confirmed by the fact that Lapid lumped the country’s conventional capabilities together with its “other capabilities.” In effect, he portrayed them as indivisible components of “the operational arena.”

By combining Israel’s conventional capabilities with its nuclear option, Lapid may have signaled that he sees the latter as providing, perhaps by its mere existence, a strategic umbrella for the former. The implication may be that, under a Lapid government, the IDF can expect a freer hand and preemptive attacks against Israel’s enemies will be more likely.

Additionally, Lapid caused a certain amount of confusion regarding command and control of Israel’s “other capabilities.” He declared, “The fate of the people of Israel is in the right hands.” He might have wished to simply commend those in attendance (and others) for their daily efforts to maintain and protect Israel’s “other capabilities.” However, the question naturally arose as to whose “hands” he was alluding to and what might be their responsibilities and authority.

The bottom line is that Lapid, perhaps without intending to, increased the uncertainty surrounding Israel’s nuclear doctrine. Are Israel’s “other capabilities” still a last resort option or are they now closer to being put on the table? What, if anything, does operationalizing Israel’s “other capabilities” mean for IDF military plans? Fortunately, the net impact of this uncertainty, which may be the result of simple amateurism, could reinforce Israel’s strategic deterrence at a time when the country faces growing threats from both near and far.

Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.

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