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Israel’s Nukes, Once Defensive, Now Guarantee Conflict – OpEd


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.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

3 thoughts on “Israel’s Nukes, Once Defensive, Now Guarantee Conflict – OpEd

  • May 26, 2012 at 5:44 am

    A very straight-forward and blunt analysis of the Israeli agenda and perspectives in the Mid East. One would only wish that the Jewish-dominated Western media adopt a policy of transparency and impartiality and publish articles such as Silverstein’s in their mainstream organs, thus enabling their publics to achieve a capacity to dictate to their parliamentary representatives, fair and just bases on which to decide on geopolitical activities. This will help save millions of innocent civilians in the world’s poor and oppressed nations, which are now the target of Western military powers.

  • May 26, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Very good article, its really an eye opener for people like me as I was puzzled by the reaction from Israel to the Iran’s Nuke program. Someone like the US/Russia should start abandon the Nukes as this will make way for other countries to follow. Thus the rights of future generation is protected. This kind of bullying by Israel will not long lost, in front of Almighty the nukes are nothing.

  • May 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    That is what a MAD doctrine is there soft power all threats that threaten the state require a nuclear response. The only country to ever collapse nuclear armed was the USSR. The US took a huge risk, the end result not how it is achieved is what dictates the response.

    That is what Pakistan is up to something similar either the US develops a plan that allows them to retake Afghanistan or Pakistan will collapse an there will be broken arrows lose. The Afghan plan is to wait them out, but Pakistan will go over the cliff right to the brink and over the cliff, that is why you can’t force them into NW, to do so the state will collapse and broken arrow, you have to stop an they win because they can hold out longer and take it to the brink.

    There thinking is this it is either a stable Afghanistan or the collapse of Pakistan an broken arrows, these guy drive around warhead in vans and keep warhead in safe houses. What will the US do, the whole thing has been a waste of time.

    The US took that risk with USSR and now they will take it with Pakistan. Then we will all take if US collapses. Dealing with nuclear powers is Russian Roulette, the US did not know what the USSR response would be to the collapse of the state, it is the result not how it is achieved, that dictates the response. Collapse of the state by power requires a nuclear response. That is what MAD is.

    Israel is the least of anyone’s problems in regards to nuclear weapons.


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