Avner Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, was in town to promote his new book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb. I was able to join him for breakfast and had a fascinating conversation. He was a wealth of information.
One of the most interesting thoughts he offered was about the transformation, over time, of the strategic rationale for Israel’s nuclear weapons program. It was first conceived by David Ben Gurion (who began thinking of this idea as early as 1948) as a purely defensive effort to deter a joint Arab attack on Israel which threatened its very existence. Cohen was the first scholar to note that Israel built its first crude bomb around the time of the 1967 War and it too was meant as a Doomsday weapon to prevent Israel being overrun.
However, over time Israel’s nuclear weapons have taken on a completely different strategic rationale. Now, they enable Israel to adopt its intransigent, rejectionist approach to its neighbors and the Israeli-Arab conflict. In fact, I believe that many of Israel’s most rash and disastrous military adventures including the first Lebanon war (1982), the 2006 Lebanon War, and Operation Cast Lead could only likely have been undertaken by a government which knew it could back up its aggressive war-making with the threat of nukes.
This seems an extension of Jabotinsky’s Iron Fist doctrine which argues that Israel must meet its enemies with overwhelming force and destroy their will to resist. The doctrine has never really worked in practice. But nuclear weapons do conjure the image of Samson bringing down the Philistine temple to get revenge on the conquerors of his people. Israel banks on the fact that its enemies will be forced to back down with a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Like the Iron Fist, the nuclear threat hasn’t worked either. Arab nations continue resistance to Israeli diktat and don’t seem phased by the possibility of Israel dropping the Big One.
Other nations too initially pursued nuclear weapons as part of a defensive strategy to protect themselves from threat of annihilation by an enemy, only to have those weapons loom over the country’s strategic military thinking and become an albatross. The U.S., the Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Pakistan and India, among others, first developed their own weapons in order to deter enemy attack. Afterward, the weapons turned into a means of projecting its power and threatening posture against its enemies. One can credibly argue that one of the main reasons the Kashmir conflict remains unresolved is that neither India nor Pakistan feel at all vulnerable in their ongoing intransigence regarding solving it. They are immune to pressure both from their opponent nor from world powers who might otherwise wish to impose a settlement.
Similarly, Israel knows its nukes are an ace up its sleeve. Should the world attempt to force a negotiated peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians it could simply walk away all the while holding a nuke behind its back.
Most observers of Iran’s nuclear efforts believe Iran, too is pursuing them because of its fear of attack from regional neighbors. But after it gets a nuke, might it too use them to become the bully on the block as Israel and North Korea have?
You’ll have to pardon a parallel I’ve noticed from the sport of American football. The more armor and padding football players have, the stronger their helmets are, the harder and more dangerously they hit each other. They believe that the padding protects them enough, that they can take risks and hit opposing players in places and ways they might otherwise not. The truth is that the more reckless hits aren’t fully absorbed even by the more advanced forms of protective gear and injuries to players become more debilitating and life threatening.
While there are limitations to the power that nukes offer Israel, it is true that they have enabled it to maintain a regional hegemony and hemmed in the ambitions of its front-line neighbors. That is why Israel is so irked by a potential Iranian nuke. The nonsense about Iran posing an existential threat to Israel or Tehran being Munich and the year being 1938 is faux Jewish historical analysis. The truth is that Israel simply refuses to have a local competitor who might hem in its own regional ambitions.
Thus Israel’s jihad against Iran’s nuclear program isn’t driven by Jewish history or by fears of the Holocaust or any such thing. It is driven purely by regional strategic ambition.
Just as the U.S.’ international dominance is beginning to wane, Israel’s dominance of its sphere is entering the same process of confrontation and decline. Most reasonable observers, including some Israeli intelligence officials believe that Iran eventually will develop nuclear capability (though not nuclear weapons). If that day ever comes, Israel will have to accept the fact that there’s a new kid on the block. It no longer will be able to offer ultimata to its neighbors and run roughshod over their sovereignty. But will there be any cool head among the Israeli policymaking apparatus who will recognize and accept these limitations? Or will Israel, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, learn to stop worrying and ride the nukes down to their Arab target? Will Israel become a latter day Samson and take the Middle East down with it in a fit of stubborn pique? Stranger things have happened.