In view of growing Middle Eastern turmoil since the Arab upheavals of 2011, the time has come for Israel to review the efficacy of its traditional policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Given the upheavals cascading throughout the Middle East since 2011, Israel now faces a unique dilemma. Notwithstanding the logical underpinnings and coherence of its own unilateral foreign policies, whatever Jerusalem should decide to do or not do about the “big picture,” a vision that could include the advent of a nuclear Iran as a regional hegemon and heightened Shi’ite-Sunni infighting, this ever-volatile region could slip irretrievably into a still deeper level of chaos.
If Israel is to remain secure in such an environment, it will have to re-evaluate its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
To date, the “bomb-in-the-basement” policy has made good sense for Israel. Both friends and foes recognize that it possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are both survivable and capable of penetrating enemy defenses. Indeed, for adversaries not to acknowledge these capabilities would require a self-imposed intellectual deficit.
But what should Israel do about its nuclear posture going forward? How should this ambiguous stance be adapted to the convergent and inter-penetrating threats of still-impending Middle Eastern/North African revolutions, a nuclear Iran and Israel’s more or less constant concern about negotiating agreements with state and sub-state (terrorist) organizations?
Conventional wisdom assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel’s nuclear bomb from the “basement” would elicit new waves of global condemnation without offering any commensurate benefits.
But conventional wisdom is not always wise. The pertinent strategic issues for Israel are not simple or straightforward. In the arcane world of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states simply acknowledge the existence of the Jewish state’s nuclear arsenal. Rather, these states must believe that Israel holds usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem would be willing to employ them in certain circumstances.
The Middle East’s endemic instabilities create good reason to doubt that Israel would benefit from a continuation of the policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain developments within Israel’s defense and intelligence communities, that the country’s senior leadership fully understands such informed skepticism. To best augment such an understanding, Israel’s nuclear strategists should proceed interrogatively—in effect, creating a continuously self-refined “strategic dialectic” from which suitable answers and policies could then be incrementally extracted or systematically deduced.
A basic point now warrants reiteration. Israel is imperiled by existential threats that fully justify its possession of nuclear weapons and that require a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. Without such weapons and doctrine, Israel cannot survive over time, especially if neighboring regimes become more adversarial, more jihadist and/or less risk-averse.
Nuclear weapons and a correspondingly purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove vital to those more-or-less predictable scenarios requiring preemptive action and/or retaliation.
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University, and the author of 12 books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. The second edition of his “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” (Rowman & Littlefield) was published in 2018.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
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