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The Nuclear Threat in the Middle East

Today’s article is “Existential risks to Israel,” an opinion peace on the Israel National News site. The subject is nuclear war, which is something that I find is treated suprisingly casually by commentators in America. We seem to assume that none of Israel’s enemies have nuclear weapons, ergo it is not a serious threat. But Israel cannot be so sanguine. As the author writes,

Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, world politics have been anarchic. In essence, this means that every nation-state’s security – but especially beleaguered states such as Israel – must rely on the unpredictable dynamics of military threat.

Okay, world politics have always been anarchic (I’m not sure why he traces that specifically to Westphalia) but his point is valid: Israel’s only security is through military threats. That is to say, theoretically Israel could have security through peace agreements, and in fact it has pretty much ended the threats from Egypt and Jordan. However, there remain substantial groups of people committed to the destruction of Israel, namely Iran and Palestinians, and they are completely immune to negotiated settlements. Israel tried the two-state solution in 2007, but the new Palestinian government was quickly voted/forced out of office and the new one repudiated the agreement that Israel had a right to exist. There is too much ingrained hatred for top-level negotiations to achieve anything beyond superficial successes.

This has implications for conventional war and politics, but what about nuclear war? Israel is small enough that a couple of nuclear missiles could essentially wipe it out. Iran probably has not produced nuclear weapons, although, as one of the commentators on the article points out, it is WWII technology, now approaching 100 years old: can we expect them not to get them eventually? If they do, Israel has to worry about how to deter an attack. But even if they don’t, they have to calculate under what circumstances they might need to initiate a nuclear war; for example, in case of radiation attacks, conventions missiles aimed at Israel’s nuclear reactor, or hacking attempts. The author makes the case that Israel might want to admit announce its nuclear capacity in order to make credible nuclear threats as a deterrent.

I think these are sound considerations. Honestly, though, I suspect that Iran is aware of Israel’s nuclear capacity and expects a nuclear strike in case of a catastrophic attack. That is why they are more comfortable attacking Israel indirectly, through terrorism, instead of lobbing missiles in their direction. I think Israel has more to gain from keeping its capabilities secret than it does from announcing specific responses that it might take. Such a prior announcement might deter Iran, although I doubt it. The best advantage it might give Israel is that it will have announced to the world in advance what the trigger will be. A nuclear strike is a very grave step indeed, and can expect to bring general condemnation. If Israel has warned its adversaries in advance of conditions for such a strike, however, at least it could make a plausible case that the burden lies on the enemy who willingly triggered the attack.

I liked this article pretty well compared to most I read, but it does contain a fair amount of jargon. At one point, the author writes,

Any particular instance of accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. Not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war, however, would be the result of accident.

This statement is only meaningful if he is using “accident” in a particular way, and even then I’m not entirely sure what the point is. Instead of explaining what he is getting at, however, he merely ends the paragraph with, “On such terminological matters, the underlying conceptual distinctions will have to be kept prudently in mind by Israeli strategic thinkers.” I have no idea what his point is, and I’m not at all certain he had a coherent point.

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