Israel’s nuclear hegemony problem

After Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, he always emphasized that it would be impossible for a West Bank Palestinian state to defeat Israel. Arafat’s argument was simple. Israel possessed an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons represented the ultimate backstop for a country’s weakness or lack of strategic depth. Arafat’s argument was flawed with reference to a territory in such close proximity to Israel’s major population centers.

But the argument presented the Jewish state with a serious dilemma. With reference to the region of the Middle East writ large, Israeli nuclear hegemony did more than make up for its geographic and demographic inferiority. In fact, in the eyes of the world, it turned Israel from a David (surrounded, outnumbered and with a forward border nine short miles from the sea) into the Goliath of the Middle East.

Arafat, of course, was playing the long game. He knew that in time either the Arabs or Iran, or both, would also possess nuclear weapons. The wily Palestinian leader understood that nuclear weapons could only be advantageous if they were a monopoly. Once the monopoly ends, asymmetric warfare and/or conventional weapons will once again rule the battlefield. In this scenario (without a monopoly) nuclear weapons are tantamount to national suicide. Because of Israel’s small size (half the size of New Jersey, discounting the Negev) nuclear parity would put it at a great disadvantage. Considering the vast Arab and Iranian population and geographic superiority, it would be more likely that Israel’s freedom of action would be constrained. Arafat’s long game was to achieve a West Bank state in hopes that an ally could achieve nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, Israel never gave up the West Bank.

Now, however, the time of the nuclear long game is quickly approaching. The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 has conceded that at some point in the not-too-distant future, Iran will become a nuclear threshold state. The only thing left to negotiate is the length of the threshold. Israel still holds out hope that a regime of non-enrichment will be implemented in the final deal. But PM Netanyahu is kidding himself. Iran’s “right to enrich” was a given even before the election of the “moderate” Iranian president. Enrichment was an Iranian red line that the American Liberal foreign policy establishment had already bought into. President Obama is the leader of that establishment. Bibi can send as many delegations to Washington as he wants, but on the issue of enrichment, the die is cast.

Unless, of course, the PM changes his strategy. The current Israeli strategy is political and aimed directly at the partisan polarization on Capitol Hill in Washington. This strategy is not only unworkable, it is foolish. In the US, Netanyahu is perceived as a kind of foreign Republican “out to get” President Obama. This Israeli policy works to alienate mainstream Democrats (left-of-center voters) and drive them further toward a position that either accepts Iran as a threshold state or pushes them further toward containment.

The Israeli leader is spinning his tires with these voters. Without the Democratic Left on Israel’s side, Israel’s ability to defeat an Obama-approved final deal holds little hope. The Democratic spin machine will be too difficult to overcome.

Here again, Israel’s nuclear hegemony problem gets in its way. Perhaps Netanyahu understands that the die is cast on enrichment. If this is true, the purpose he has for the endgame is solely to widen the nuclear threshold by lengthening Iran’s breakout time. A closer consultation with President Obama would work to lessen the perceived interference and obstructionism in the PM’s current policy. This would certainly help Bibi’s image with the Democratic Party. To work with Barack Obama on his legacy problem would go a long way in the US with left-leaning Americans. But it would be political poison in Israel. So far, however, no one really believes the PM has accepted the threshold state endgame.
Israel appears backed into a corner without a diplomatic way out.

Perhaps the nuclear proliferation argument might hold some promise for Netanyahu. The argument goes something like this: Even with a comprehensive final deal, Iran as a threshold state will most likely terrify the Sunni Arab states, leading to a Saudi purchase of nuclear weapons. In other words, unless the final deal completely incapacitates Iran’s nuclear weapons potential, a Middle East nuclear arms race is inevitable. This argument is coherent yet solves nothing. It does make sense for the Sunni Arabs to want to possess their own bomb, but in the final analysis, the threat of regional proliferation is in no way a deterrent for Iran to abandon its “right to enrich”. In this scenario, the proliferation argument has no conclusion other than its own realization.

But nuclear proliferation is the mostly likely direction in which we are headed. Unless Obama can achieve a breakout time that is maximal (at least a year or more), the Sunni Arab states will look to China and Pakistan as potential guarantors of Gulf and regional security. Iran is already surrounded by nuclear states (Russia, Pakistan and Israel). A nuclear Saudi Arabia not only assures the demise of the NPT and the advent of a nuclear Iran, but also negates the privileges of Israel’s nuclear hegemony.

But even with a maximal nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia still worries about American commitment to the region and the rise of Iran’s regional ambitions. Without a rollback of Iranian gains in the Levant, a Saudi nuclear ambition is a realistic outcome to an American nuclear deal which lifts all sanctions on Iran. US-Iran rapprochement is bound to fail, not because of Israel, but because it leaves the Sunni Arabs out in the cold. Unlike Netanyahu’s petulance, the Saudi King’s silence on the Iran interim nuclear deal speaks volumes. Saudi Arabia will break Obama’s designs through the threat of nuclear proliferation or its actualization.

But where does that leave the region? The US administration has no answer to this question. Neither do the Israelis. PM Netanyahu’s political strategy is either to blow up any diplomatic solution or to stretch Iran’s breakout capacity to the maximum. The latter is a laudable goal but certainly not amenable to deeper Saudi concerns over Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. Israel has yet to take a firm stand on the Iran-Arab divide. On the contrary, it rides the fence in the Syrian Civil War and does nothing about Iran’s rearming of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Now, the Americans appear to have a foot in all three camps. Quite a neat trick, considering the US is having great trouble with its “standing” among its traditional allies in the region. Saudi-US relations are strained to the breaking point. The Saudis perceive Obama to be weak. They understand that the American war option against Iran is off the table. They are not sure about Israel. For the Sunni Arabs, the war for the Levant and the Iranian nuclear program are complementary issues.

Unless the US can solve the Syrian Civil War this January in Geneva, or the Americans firmly place the military option back on the table with Iran, the Sunni Arabs could very easily break the back of the NPT.

Israel’s nuclear program began in the 1950’s. To this day, the government of Israel has remained completely silent as to its existence. But as the world’s worst-kept “secret”, the day of reckoning has now come. The Middle East is on the verge of a grave nuclear proliferation. The age of Israel’s nuclear hegemony is over. Without a strategy for regional nuclear disarmament, the positions of Israel, the Sunni Arabs and Iran will only worsen. Unfortunately, the US and the other members of the P5+1 just don’t understand that truth.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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