Iranian Nuclear Weapons and ‘Palestine’: Dangers for Israel
For keen observers of world politics, a key concept must be “synergy.” Here, where the “whole” of certain global intersections could sometime be greater than the simple sum of its “parts,” analysts can assess probable outcomes in all of their authentic and irreducible complexity. Although substantially more difficult to undertake than assessments based on simplifying assumptions of separateness, such synergistic examinations are indispensable to accuracy.
In essence, theretofore, they are indispensable to truth.
But what sort of truth is most important to seek by capable Israeli strategists? One compelling and hard-to-surpass answer must concern Iran and Palestine. More precisely, for 2019, Israeli analysts will have to look very closely at the pace of Iranian nuclearization (still undiminished by the July 2015 JCPOA agreement and also by the subsequent US withdrawal from the pact) and the more-or-less corresponding pace of Palestinian statehood.
Ominously, as Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian statehood seem to be progressing at roughly the same pace, the cumulative security threat to Israel could become overwhelming.
For Israeli planners, this prospectively unique and unprecedented threat should be treated with distinctly focused intellectual respect. Contrary to long-prevailing conventional wisdom, Iran and Palestine do not represent discrete or unrelated hazards to Israel. Instead, they delineate intersecting, mutually reinforcing, and potentially existential perils. It follow that Jerusalem must do whatever possible to remove or diminish predictably corrosive security dangers on both fronts simultaneously.
What steps would be involved? Among other things, Israel will need to continually enhance its multilayered active defenses. As long as incoming rocket aggressions from Gaza, the West Bank, and/or Lebanon were to remain entirely conventional, inevitable “leakage” could likely be considered tolerable. But once these rockets are fitted with chemical and/or biological materials, any such porosity would quickly prove “unacceptable.”
Facing Iranian nuclear missiles, Israel’s “Arrow” ballistic missile defense system would reasonably require a fully 100% reliability of interception. To achieve any such level of reliability, however, isn’t possible. Assuming that the current prime minister had already abandoned any 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 and longer-term to credible deterrence.
In part because of the interactive effects between Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood, Israel will soon need to update and further refine its existing strategies of deterrence. Israel’s leaders will have to accept that certain identifiable leaders of these overlapping enemies might not always satisfy complex criteria of rational behavior. In such improbable but still conceivable circumstances, assorted jihadist adversaries in Palestine, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere might refuse to back away from aggressions against Israel.
By definition, these irrational enemies could exhibit such conspicuous refusals in fully considered anticipation of devastating Israeli reprisal.
Sooner rather than later, and facing a new and hard-to-measure synergy from Iranian and Palestinian aggressions, Israel will need to take appropriate steps to assure that the Jewish state: (1) does not become the object of any non-conventional attacks from these enemies; and (2) can successfully deter all possible forms of non-conventional conflict. To meet this ambitious but necessary goal, Jerusalem must retain its recognizably far-reaching conventional superiority in weapons and manpower, including maintaining effective tactical control over the Jordan Valley.
In principle, such retentions could reduce the overall likelihood of ever actually having to enter into any chemical, biological, or nuclear exchange with regional adversaries. Correspondingly, Israel should plan to begin to move 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,” and in carefully controlled phases — Israel could better ensure that its relevant enemies will remain subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence.
Israeli planners may soon have to understand that the efficacy or credibility of their country’s nuclear deterrence posture could 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, or of an Israeli force that is not sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks, could undermine this deterrence posture.
Also critical, of course, is that Israel’s current and prospective adversaries see the Jewish state’s nuclear retaliatory forces as “penetration capable” — meaning they are capable of penetrating any Arab or Iranian aggressor’s active defenses. Naturally, a new state of Palestine would be non-nuclear itself, but it could still present a new “nuclear danger” to Israel by its impact upon the more generally regional “correlation of forces.” Thereby, Palestine could represent an indirect but nonetheless markedly serious nuclear threat to Israel.
There is still more to be done. Israel should continue to strengthen its active defenses, but Jerusalem must also do everything possible to improve each critical and interpenetrating component of its nuanced deterrence posture. The Israeli task may also require more incrementally explicit disclosures of nuclear targeting doctrine, and, accordingly, a steadily expanding role for cyber-defense and cyber-war. And even before undertaking such delicately important refinements, Israel will need to more systematically differentiate between adversaries that are presumably rational, irrational, or “mad.”
Overall, the success of Israel’s national deterrence strategies will be contingent upon an informed prior awareness of enemy preference and of specific enemy hierarchies of preferences. Altogether new and open-minded attention will need to be focused on the seeming emergence of a “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States. This time around, the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow could prove helpful rather than adversarial. For Jerusalem, it may even be reasonable to explore whether this once hostile relationship could turn out to be more strategically gainful for Israel than its traditionally historic ties to the United States. At this transitional moment in geostrategic time, when Donald Trump’s often incoherent alignments could multiply or escalate, virtually anything is possible.
In any event, it is essential that Israeli planners approach all prospective enemy threats as potentially interactive or even synergistic. If a formalized state of Palestine does not readily find itself in the same ideological orbit as Iran — now an increasingly plausible conclusion in view of still-accelerating Shiite-Sunni fissions in the Middle East — the net threat to Israel could become more perilous than the mere additive result of its pertinent area enemies. All things considered, in approaching the possible simultaneity of Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem must consistently bear in mind that the adversarial “whole” could prove palpably greater than the calculable sum of its belligerent “parts.”
For 2019, there could be no more important security consideration.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles in the field.