Deterrence and Israel

Israel above all knows that armaments are important not just for what could be done with them in time of war, but for the psychological shadows they cast in time of peace. The vital question of Iranian nuclear weapons together with official expressions of intention regarding their use, do cast psychological shadows – and not exclusively upon Israel. In the conflict of interests and in the clash of values between individualism and collectivism, there are omnipresent risks and these can deter Iran and others in the region while dissuading the existing nuclear powers. The psychological shadows of Israeli deterrence are not just the hobgoblins of nuclear war.

It is unhappily true that in large part our measure as the only Jewish state our future, and our mark upon history, will be taken by our response to the perilous risks of military engagement with Iran and others and with political engagement with the United States. We must assume that our adversaries will make use of the threat of war and nuclear weapon acquisition to weaken our resolve, to divide us from our allies, and thus to make gains at the expense of our interests.

The threat will not always be explicit. In the long run the eroding impact of the threat that grows but remains beneath the surface is the greater danger. The shadows cast by Iranian armament, though always psychological in one sense or another, are not just psychological in the sense that they dominate the surface emotions of political leaders throughout the Middle East and incline them to folly. They are thus political shadows, in the broadest sense.

Israel begins with the fact that the primary function of her military establishment is positive, to assert her interests and to project to the world the image of her Jewish identity. It is a truism, but worth repeating, that military force has meaning only when it supports political purpose. Thus it is inevitable that our political purposes should prosper or fail with alterations that affect the image of our military power and identity. As the Iranian enriched uranium stockpile grows beyond the point at which it still could be dismissed as insignificant, they construct a minimum strategic deterrent force.

Whatever the future holds, it is beyond dispute that the changed military and political situation demands the opening of the Sampson option – Israel nuclear capability. Perhaps, contrary to the cries and tears of some our think tanks, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply has no faith that any nuclear power will ever gain such a lead over another that it can afford to risk a showdown. If this is the case, Netanyahu may feel a need for the limited advances he can press for, because he can endure the risk they involve; the agonizing reappraisal  of Israel’s military position and type of armaments.

With the Sampson option Israel can bi-laterally dissuade the United States even if it cannot engage in multi-lateral regional deterrence. Nuclear war is a more horrifying prospect than Muslim domination. President Obama certainly recognizes this sentiment not as a fringe manifestation, but he no doubt has noted other indications to give it symptomatic value. In particular, he must have been convinced by the swelling demand for negotiations with Iran earlier this year, and that negotiating, in an atmosphere in which Israel is under pressure, might yield sound returns with a very minimum of risk. A resounding political effect was achieved, in other words, with very little effort. Iran’s minimum demand, which appears to be the legitimization of its uranium enrichment is considered both inevitable and quite reasonable.

In a Middle East nuclear era the prevailing side is very likely to be the side least disturbed by the risk of nuclear war. The P5+1 negotiating proposals were piled one upon another, while the powers that have everything to lose debate in public the maximum concessions they may be willing to make to buy peace. It is sound advice, both because there is probably little to be alarmed about, but also because an attitude of calm firmness offers safe-prudent guards against mistaking concessions for prudent negotiating proposals.

Nevertheless firmness is not all that is required, nor is it an attitude of unmixed benefit. President Obama should know that democracies seldom accomplish anything merely by being firm. Prime Minister Netanyahu should stress that the counterpart of hesitation is an extra measure of resolution, dedication, and effort once the die is cast. If not heeded then the Sampson option will prevail as the default.

Dr. Glen Segell, FRGS, is Research Fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Editor of the London Security Policy Study and Research Director of Securitatem Vigalate.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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