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Lapid: Amateur Hour or a Master Act?

Earlier this month, at a ceremony marking the installation of a new head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), Prime Minister Yair Lapid made several statements which merit close scrutiny.

The Prime Minister said “[israel’s] operational arena …is made up of defense capabilities and attack capabilities and what is commonly called in the foreign media ‘other capabilities’. These other capabilities keep us alive and will keep us alive as long as we and our children are here.”

The use of the term “other capabilities” was viewed unanimously as a reference to Israel’s reported, but never officially confirmed, nuclear weapons arsenal.

Assuming this presumption to be correct there could be two main interpretations for the Prime Minister’s declaration. Lapid was not delivering a strategic address. Rather he was merely welcoming a new nominee and in his efforts to enhance the moment he went overboard to accentuate the significance of the position the incoming head will hold.

However Israeli government officials, novices or not, should have realized by now that even the most innocent and tangential reference to the country’s non-conventional capabilities often triggers speculations as to its possible strategic ramifications. This reality is the result of the secrecy surrounding the issue and the intense geopolitical hostilities endemic to the Middle East which cause any utterance on the subject to reverberate throughout the region and oftentimes the world.

Whether he meant it or not, therefore, Lapid’s oblique reference to the “other capabilities “ as a kind of a national life insurance policy could be taken to mean that he sees this potential as the ultimate guarantor against an actual existential threat. It could thus be read as in line with the long standing Israeli bomb-in-the-basement posture which reserves the nuclear option solely as a last resort weapon.

This conclusion also tallies with the fact that Lapid’s term in office is coming to an end shortly and it is unlikely he would (or could) initiate a transformative reconfiguration of Israel’s strategic posture in the remaining time.

Yet a more involved explanation to the Prime Minister’s comments cannot be entirely ruled out. While Lapid mentioned Israel’s “defense capabilities and attack capabilities” he avoided linking these means to assuring the survival of the country. Rather it was Israel’s “other capabilities” which he tied directly to keeping the nation “alive” now and in the future. In so doing Lapid in effect downplayed the role of Israel’s conventional capabilities in favor of a de-facto posture of nuclear deterrence.

Lapid went on to praise Israel’s first Prime Minister the late David Ben-Gurion for having the “vision” to initiate the state’s atomic program soon after its establishment in 1948. As a result, he said, “This is what is now in front of me…” This expression can be taken as a hint that as far as he is concerned the days of the bomb remaining in the basement may be numbered. Lapid might have implied that to him the “other” option is an operational, rather than a theoretical, capability.

In fact an indirect confirmation for this inference could be drawn from the fact that the Prime Minister lumped the country’s conventional defensive and offensive capabilities together with its “other capabilities” as  indistinguishable components of what he called “the operational arena.”

By combining Israel’s conventional capabilities with its nuclear option to form the country’s operational range, Lapid may have signaled that he sees the latter as providing, perhaps by its mere existence, a strategic umbrella for the former. The implication may be that under a Lapid government the IDF can  expect a freer hand and that preemptive attacks against Israel’s enemies will become more probable.

Additionally, Lapid likely caused quite a confusion regarding the command and control of Israel’s “other capabilities” when he declared “the fate of the people of Israel is in the right hands.” He might have wished to simply commend those in attendance (and others) for their daily efforts to maintain and protect the “other capabilities.” However, naturally the question arose as to whose “hands” was he alluding to as safeguarding Israel’s fate and what were their responsibilities and authority?

The bottom line is that Lapid, perhaps entirely by chance, enhanced the uncertainty regarding Israel’s nuclear “doctrine”.  Are the “other capabilities“

supposedly in its possession still reserved as a last resort option or are they now closer to being put on the “table”? What, if anything, does “operationalizing” the “other capabilities“ mean for IDF military plans?

Fortunately, the net impact of this declaratory vagueness, the likely outcome of rampant amateurism, may be the reinforcement of Israel’s strategic deterrence at a time when the country faces growing threats from both far away and nearby fronts.

About the Author
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.

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