US Foreign Policy Threats to Israel’s National Security: Strategic Imperatives for Jerusalem
Though US President Donald Trump describes himself as pro-Israel, any serious analytic assessment of his foreign policies would point toward a different conclusion. On the surface, of course, Mr. Trump’s transfer of America’s embassy to Jerusalem, his recent acceptance of Israel’s established West Bank settlements, and his undiminished rhetorical support of Israel’s overall security posture suggest a sympathetic US administration. Still, however unwitting or unintentional, the actual expected consequences of Trump foreign policies are sorely injurious for Israel, not gainful.
As for the tangible dangers posed by these policies, they could be sudden and immediate or incremental and long-term.
For doubters, core examples are readily available. These include the American president’s strengthening of certain leading Sunni Arab military forces (as a presumptive counter to Shiite Iran) and his declared US departure from Syria. Already, this staged withdrawal is emboldening Hezbollah.
At this particular stage, for Israel, the well-organized Shiite militia supervised from Tehran poses a greater overall strategic threat than any traditional Arab army. In specific reference to a commonly perceived threat from Iran, Saudi and Egyptian military objectives are now more closely aligned with Israeli security goals than once might have been thought possible. Still, those Sunni Arab states joined together in a common Trump-led struggle against Shiite Iran could falter in their apparent allegiance. Any such substantial weakening could be triggered by altogether reasonable fears that a US-generated war with Iran would produce irrecoverable harms.
One unintended corollary of any such Sunni-Arab weakening could be a more militarily capable and worrisome regime in Tehran and Moscow.
All things considered, and however one might choose to analyze Israel’s dynamic geopolitical challenges — a task that must inevitably prove both multi-layered and expansively complex — Donald Trump’s foreign policies will remain determinably “net-negative” for the country’s national security.
Upon considered reflection, the American president’s conspicuous policy declarations concerning Israel’s “eternal capital,” its West Bank settlements, and its enduring access to conventional arms transfers will provide few if any strategic benefits to Israel. Moreover, from an international law perspective, these declarations will prove essentially irrelevant.
In Israel, it is time to inquire: what is the bottom line? The correct response? It is that the Trump presidency, even if well-intentioned toward the Jewish State, lacks sufficient intellectual resources. Longer-term, this seat-of-the-pants or “doctrine-free” American administration is likely to become as darkly injurious for Israel as it has already become for the United States. This US presidency, after all, believes more in “attitude than preparation.” In virtually all matters of substance, it remains determinedly anti-historical and anti-intellectual. Also, this presidency is glaringly unconcerned about peremptory human rights, as evidenced, inter alia, by Trump’s flagrantly open abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.
For Israel, the salient message here should be clear. This abandonment should stand as an unambiguous warning against placing too much faith in American security pledges or commitments, especially during the persistently dissembling “Trump Era.”
There is more. From the start, North Korean nuclear negotiations have been mismanaged by Trump; correspondingly, Pyongyang continues to expand and modernize its advanced nuclear weapons missile programs. Similarly, Mr. Trump’s unilateral US withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA pact concerning Iran has accelerated that adversarial state’s worrisome nuclearization. Ominously, too, fearful strategic nuclear/hypervelocity missile developments are expanding in Russia, a superpower foe which sees in this unreflective American president an optimally convenient surrogate for achieving Moscow’s national military goals.
The principal reason for identifying the unreliability/unpredictability of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy for Israeli security is intellectual. Trump has revealed a near-total lack of historic or strategic understanding, and a derivative disregard for all constitutive elements of international relations.
In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the following critical question ought to be posed:
Should those officials responsible for meeting Israel’s security obligations place their existential bets on such evidently fragile analytic foundations?
It’s not a complicated question.
The comprehensive security dilemma for Israel posed by President Trump is augmented by various similarly serious jurisprudential deficits. These legal shortcomings include an apparent unconcern for certain “peremptory” obligations of national and international law. Without suitable embarrassment, this president has argued that he maintains a personal right to override US Constitutional expectations concerning birthright and US citizenship, and that the US had properly terminated its codified obligations under the INF Treaty with Russia.
One conceivably plausible outcome of various Trump-induced misunderstandings will be a continuously-expanding nuclear arms race between the superpowers. For Israel in particular, any such corrosive expansion could spawn serious “spillover” risks for itself and for the wider Middle East. Taken together, these mutually-reinforcing risks would concern incessant destabilization, terror, and war, and could present in many possible configurations and/or synergistic interactions.
There is more. For Israel, there is a relevant early history. Then, openly, presidential candidate Donald Trump had advised “killing the families” of terrorists and being less openly concerned about humanitarian international law — that is, about the civilizing rules of engagement found collectively at the Law of War or the Law of Armed Conflict. In essence, heeding this president’s lawless counsel on such a salient matter would have amounted to a US reversal of incontrovertible Nuremberg Principles.
Such a law-violating reversal would carry unforeseeable but still fearful consequences involving nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
All things considered, Israel now faces a unique and markedly complex dilemma. Whatever the logical underpinnings and determined coherence of its own unilateral foreign policies, President Donald Trump’s continuing missteps with Syria, Iran, Russia, China, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and certain still-compliant European allies will further destabilize the Middle East — directly or indirectly, suddenly or incrementally. Whatever Jerusalem should decide to do or not to do about the “big picture” — a security vision that must include the tangible emergence of “Cold War II” — this unsteady region could slip irretrievably into ever-deeper levels of authentic “chaos.”
The most presently meaningful question for Jerusalem should concern whether this slippage is apt to be the immediate result of some Trump-generated catastrophe, or whether it will manifest itself instead in certain calculable and episodic bouts of Trump policy-induced suffering.
With this query in mind, one critical issue must concern imperative reevaluations of Israel’s “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”
To date, the “bomb-in-the-basement” policy has made eminently good sense for Israel. Presumptively, both friends and foes already recognize that Israel possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating any determined enemy’s active defenses. For these adversaries not to acknowledge these capabilities would require a very hard-to-explain and implausibly generalized intellectual deficit.
Going forward, what should Israel do about its vital nuclear posture? The conventional wisdom routinely 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 only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and would do this without returning any commensurate benefits.
History, however, reveals that the conventional wisdom is often unwise. The pertinent strategic issues for Israel are not at all simple or straightforward. Instead, in the inherently arcane world of Israel’s nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states merely acknowledge the Jewish State’s nuclear status. Instead, it is important that these states further believe that Israel holds usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would be willing to employ such weapons in certain definably clear circumstances.
For Israel, merely possessing nuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by pertinent enemy states, could never by itself ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, though starkly counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the overall credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.
Skeptics, no doubt, will disagree. It is, after all, seemingly sensible to assert that nuclear ambiguity has “worked” thus far. Arguably, while Israel’s current nuclear policy has done little to deter multiple conventional terrorist attacks, it has plainly succeeded in keeping that country’s enemies, whether singly or in collaboration, from mounting any existential aggressions.
An integral part of Israel’s multi-layered security system lies in effective ballistic missile defenses, primarily, the Arrow or “Hetz.” Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, augmented by the newer, shorter-range, and systematically-integrated operations of Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and various related active defenses, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. No system of missile defense can ever be entirely “leak proof,” and even a single incoming nuclear missile that manages to penetrate Arrow or its corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
In essence, current Israeli policy of maintaining an undeclared nuclear capacity is unlikely to work indefinitely. Leaving aside a jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan, the most obviously unacceptable “leakage” threat would come in the future from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, any newly-nuclear Iran would then need certain convincing assurances that Israel’s atomic weapons were both invulnerable and penetration-capable.
A nuclear weapons-capable Iran may already be a fait accompli. For whatever reasons, neither the “international community” in general nor Israel in particular has managed to create sufficient credibility to undertake timely preemptive action.
It is likely that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps in cyber-defense and cyber-war, but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction would not be enough to stop Iran altogether. The sanctions sequentially leveled at Tehran over the years have had an economic impact, but they have also had no determinable impact in halting Iranian nuclearization altogether or stopping Tehran’s discernible enhancements of intercontinental ballistic missile potential.
Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a prospectively nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions.
Were its leaders to be or turn non-rational, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a challenging prospect is certainly improbable, perhaps even at the very outer fringes of plausibility. But it is also not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect obtains in already-nuclear and residually coup-vulnerable Pakistan.
To protect itself against military strikes from irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind a so-called Samson Option, which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.
In the final analysis, there are various specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of any purposefully selective and incremental end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The optimal time to begin such an “end” may not yet have come. But at the moment that Iran or any other obvious foe verifiably crosses the nuclear threshold, that critical time will have arrived.
In many ways, growing instability in the Middle East is the plausible outcome of President Trump’s disjointed foreign policies. Such instability, in turn, could heighten the potential for assorted expansive and prospectively unconventional wars. Israel, it follows, must continue to prepare capably to upgrade its strategic posture, especially its national military nuclear strategy and its corollary longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Otherwise, recalling the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Israel and America could sometime have to bear witness to abundantly measureless lamentations; that is, to the irremediably grievous observation that because of once-avoidable US White House derelictions, “the center cannot hold.”
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. An expanded version of this article was originally published by Modern Diplomacy.