The Oslo Accords and Israel's Nuclear Strategy

A Unique Policy Memorandum for Prime Minister Netanyahu
Prepared by Louis Rene Beres

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

With your announced decision to accept Oslo as fully binding, Israel's security is increasingly likely to depend upon nuclear weapons and strategy. Faced with a codified and substantial loss of territories - a loss that might still be augmented by transfer to Syria of the Golan - your Government must now decide on how it plans to compensate for Israel's diminished strategic depth. Although the shrinkage of strategic depth does not necessarily increase Israel's existential vulnerability to unconventional missile attack, it surely does increase the country's vulnerability to attacking ground forces and to subsequent enemy occupation. Moreover, the loss of strategic depth will almost certainly be interpreted by enemy states as a significant weakening of Israel's overall defense posture, an interpretation that could plausibly lead to heightened enemy incentives to strike first.

Should Israel's sacrifice of strategic depth occasioned by Oslo I and II result in a Palestinian State, the geostrategic victory of the Islamic world would be augmented by something less tangible but no less important. I refer to the probable Arab and Iranian perception of an ongoing and now unstoppable momentum against the Jewish State, a jihad-centered perception of military inevitability that might not be measurable, but that would nonetheless reinforce and reiterate the policies of war. Recognizing such perception, Israel could decide to take its bomb out of the "basement" (as a deterrence-enhancing measure) and/or it could accept a greater willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets.

For their part, certain Arab states and/or Iran would respond to such decisions. Made aware of Israeli policy shifts, shifts that would stem from both Israel's territorial vulnerabilities and from Israel's awareness of enemy perceptions spawned by the creation of Palestine, these enemy states could respond in more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly for nuclearization and for first-strike attacks. It follows that such results of the Oslo Accords would almost surely increase Israel's dependence upon nuclear weapons and strategy.

Mr. Prime Minister. These are subtle and complex questions that need to be examined systematically by your best planners/analysts. What is required is an informed assessment of the following hypothesis: Israel's ongoing commitment to the Oslo Accords will increase its overall dependence upon nuclear weapons. Here, "overall dependence upon nuclear weapons" represents what scholars call the dependent variable, while "ongoing commitment to the Oslo Accords" represents what is called the independent variable. This "commitment" should be defined continuously in terms of incremental transfers of territory in exchange for incremental promises and agreements. Research, here, must operationalize very precisely such "incremental surrenders." Further, it need not be assumed, ipso facto, that an increase in "overall dependence upon nuclear weapons" would necessarily be injurious to Israeli security and/or necessarily expand the risks of regional nuclear war. It might have these effects, but it is one that cannot be taken for granted.

In exploring this important hypothesis, the stipulated relationship should be modified by other critical factors, known epistemologically as intervening variables. Examples of these intervening variables are:
(a) changes in the configuration of state and nonstate adversaries participating in the Oslo Process;
(b) changes in the nuclear status of adversary states participating in the Oslo Process;
(c) changes in the number of nuclear adversaries in the region, whether or not these states are participants in the Oslo Process;
(d) changes in Israeli anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capabilities;
(e) changes in enemy ATBM capabilities, whether or not these capabilities are held by states participating in the Oslo Process;
(f) changes of regimes governing enemy states, whether or not these states are participating in the Oslo Process;
(g) changes in regimes governing enemy states, especially changes involving perceived rationality of decision-making, whether or not these states are participating in the Oslo Process;
(h) changes in the incidence and/or intensity of terrorist attacks directed at Israel; and (i) changes in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime. Any or all of these representative changes, as they would be perceived by Israeli decision-makers, could impact, in one way or another, the hypothesized relationship between "Israel's ongoing commitment to the Oslo Accords" and "its overall dependence upon nuclear weapons."

Mr. Prime Minister. We can discover the full meaning of an hypothesis, whether or not it offers a satisfactory solution to the problem, only by discovering what it implies. Recognizing this, the essence of any investigation of the above hypothesis must be its appropriately deductive elaboration. This means that the hypothesis be formulated by your analysts in a manner that deductions can be made from it, and that consequently a decision can be reached regarding the "truth value" of the examined facts. Moreover, a number of subsidiary or derivative hypotheses that might be generated by this particular hypothesis is effectively without limit, and future inquirers into such strategic questions will be limited primarily by their capacity for imagination.

Regarding the property of imagination, a promising way to examine the hypothesis under consideration would involve operationalizing the dependent variable ("dependence upon nuclear weapons") in terms of the particular functions served by Israeli nuclear weapons. Hence, we must first ask: Why, exactly, does Israel need nuclear weapons? By my calculations, seven functions come to mind:

(1) Deterrence of large conventional attacks by enemy states
(2) Deterrence of all levels of unconventional attacks by enemy states
(3) Preemption of enemy nuclear attacks
(4) Support of conventional preemptions against enemy state nuclear assets
(5) Support of conventional preemptions against enemy state nonnuclear assets
(6) Nuclear warfighting
(7) The "Samson Option"

Deterrence of large conventional attacks

Understood in terms of incremental territorial surrenders, Israel's ongoing commitment to Oslo could, depending upon your particular definitions, produce less and less strategic depth. In such circumstances, Israel's capacities for conventional deterrence could be severely curtailed. Thus, its first line of "defense" against large enemy attack would necessarily lie, implicitly or explicitly, in nuclear deterrence. Although nuclear deterrence might have been unnecessary for Israel to prevent large conventional attacks by enemy states prior to the Oslo Accords (because of the pre-process maintenance of minimum strategic depth), it now appears indispensable vis-a-vis this particular threat.

This is due not only to Israel's attenuated conventional capabilities, but also to the increasingly false dichotomy between purely conventional and purely unconventional capabilities. For the future, the most serious large conventional attacks against Israel would likely be launched by states with a backup of unconventional (possibly even nuclear) forces. Hence, the value of Israeli nuclear deterrence, made even more urgent by the Oslo Accords, will now always have to be assessed vis-a-vis enemy (possibly combined enemy) unconventional weapons.

It is conceivable, of course, especially in the midst of Israel's more or less ongoing territorial surrender, that some combination of enemy states, still effectively nonnuclear, could conclude that a combined conventional attack upon Israel would be productive. To prevent such a conclusion, i.e., to maintain nuclear deterrence in such weakening circumstances, Jerusalem would have to convince these enemy states that their prospective combined conventional assault would elicit a fully nuclear reprisal. This task could be made easier not only because of Israel's greatly reduced strategic depth, but also because of Israel's awareness that the conventional-unconventional threshold might still be breached first by conventional enemy attackers.

In examining the role of nuclear weapons in Israeli deterrence of large conventional attacks, the following question must also be addressed: How large is "large?" From the standpoint of the present hypothesis, and the assessment of its deducible "test implications," it is ultimately necessary not only to define pertinent thresholds between small and large conventional attacks, but also to treat the variable of "largeness" analytically as a continuous rather than as a dichotomous variable. From Israel's standpoint, it will also be important to signal prospective attackers, well in advance of particular crises, of all pertinent thresholds. Although such signaling could actually heighten enemy state willingness to launch "small" attacks against the Jewish State, it likely would still be cost-effective or gainful.

Deterrence of all levels of unconventional attacks

As in the case of deterrence of large conventional attacks, the effectiveness of Israel's nuclear weapons in deterring chemical/biological/nuclear attacks will depend, inter alia, upon the following factors: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israel's nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israel's leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker's active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israel's targeting doctrine (countervalue v. counterforce); (f) perceptions of Israel's probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of nonnuclear but chemical and/or bioliogical counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel's nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or noncreation of a Palestinian state. (For all of the above, "perceived" refers always to enemy views of Israel.)

Preemption of enemy nuclear attacks

Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks. This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (more than likely, they would be nonnuclear), but only that they could be nuclear. Should Israel ever need to actually use its nuclear forces for such a purpose - and, of course, everything possible must be done to prevent such a circumstance - it would, by definition, signal the complete failure of these forces as a deterrent.

How might Israel's commitment to the Oslo Accords, expressed in territorial losses, impact the country's capacity to preempt enemy nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons? To an extent, this is a moot question, as any Israeli nuclear preemption could be considered only in the most urgent "Third Temple" situations. Yet, it is still a question that must be asked by your best strategists and planners. To answer it, researchers need to consider those particular variables that would, collectively though not necessarily exhaustively, determine an Israeli resort to nuclear preemption. These pertinent variables are: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected disutility of enemy first-strikes (itself dependent upon the nature of enemy weaponry, projected enemy targeting doctrine, and multiplication/dispersion/hardening of Israeli nuclear forces); (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployment; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected United States and global community reactions to Israeli nuclear preemptions.

How might Israel's commitment to the Oslo Accords impact (a) to (h) above? The answer, which must be sought in systematic examination of the above-stated hypothesis, would determine the impact of the Oslo Process on Israel's capacity for nuclear preemptions, that is, on an integral component of Israel's nuclear strategy.

Support of conventional preemptions against enemy state nuclear assets

The Oslo Process could make enemy nuclear weapons especially dangerous to Israel. This is true in part because these weapons and launchers could soon be deployed in areas extremely close to Israel's most populous cities and towns. This means that Israel needs nuclear weapons, anong other reasons, to support possible conventional preemptions against such enemy nuclear assets, and that this need is being enlarged by the territorial expressions of the Oslo Accords.

With nuclear weapons and appropriate nuclear strategy, Israel could maintain, implicitly or explicitly, a credible threat of nuclear counterretaliation. Without nuclear weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on nonnuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive strike. How might Israel's commitment to Oslo impact those variables pertinent to facilitating conventional preemptions against enemy state nuclear assets? The answer, which also requires detailed investigation of the hypothesis, would be contingent, in part, on the probable impact of Oslo upon (a) to (h) above.

Support of conventional preemptions against enemy state nonnuclear assets

Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy nonnuclear (conventional/chemical/biological) assets. For reasons already discussed, this need has been enlarged rather than merely maintained or reduced by the Oslo Accords. With nuclear weapons, Israel could maintain, implicitly or explicitly, a credible threat of nuclear counterretaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on nonnuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for an Israeli preemptive strike.

How might Israel's commitment to Oslo impact those variables pertinent to supporting conventional preemptions against enemy state nonnuclear assets? The answer, again, at least in part, would be contingent upon the probable effect of the Oslo Process on (a) to (h), above.

Nuclear Warfighting

Regrettably, to be sure, the Oslo Process, because of its overall degradation of Israel's security, will likely enlarge Israel's need for nuclear weapons as actual implements for warfighting. The reason for this is simply that the Process is enlarging Israel's need for nuclear weapons to fullfil deterrence and preemption options, and because these options might not be fulfilled successfully. Deterrence and preemption strategies could fail, even though they had been supported by nuclear weapons, and Israel's continued survival might then require the weapons and tactics needed for nuclear warfighting.

How might the Oslo Process impact this requirement? This would depend, in part, on the manner in which the Process had affected Israel's acquisition of appropriate weaponry. Here, "appropriate" weaponry would likely mean high-precision, low-yield nuclear warheads that could reduce collateral damage to enemy state populations, and hypervelocity nuclear warheads that could best overcome enemy state active defenses. Calculations might also rest on the assumption that Israel would benefit from radio-frequency weapons, nuclear warheads that could be tailored to produce as much electromagnetic pulse as possible, thereby destroying electronics and communications over very wide areas. Thus, the Oslo Process could affect Israel's acquisition of appropriately "usable" nuclear weapons, and thereby satisfaction of its increased need for nuclear warfighting capabilities, to the extent that it would encourage Israel's deployment of such counterforce weapons.

The Samson Option

A final Israeli need for nuclear weapons is embedded in what is commonly called the "Samson Option." Although such use of nuclear weapons would, by definition, be catastrophic for Israel, Jerusalem is apt to prefer Samson to Masada, that is, to calculate that it would be better to "die with the Philistines" than to die alone. Such a preference, however particular scholars might feel about it, could - where it would be stated openly and in advance - represent an integral element of Israel's six other aforestated functions for nuclear weapons. Of course, the effectiveness of the Samson Option here would depend upon its persuasiveness to pertinent enemy states.

The biblical analogy, moreover, could be misleading. Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the Philistine temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing suicide or even necessarily commiting suicide. For states, unlike for individual human beings, the criteria of "life" and "death" are hardly clear and straightforward.

The Oslo Process will enlarge Israel's dependence upon nuclear weapons to fullfil "Samson" requirements. This is because the generally corrosive territorial effects of this Process upon Israel's security will make last resort options increasingly important. The effects of this Process will also make the other six nuclear weapons functions increasingly important. Exactly how important these functions are likely to become is an important question to be examined further in connection with the guiding hypothesis articulated earlier. Here, a plausible subsidiary hypothesis to consider is that preparations by Israel to implement the Samson option would strengthen these other six functions as well.

Now, how might Israel's commitment to the Oslo Process impact that country's capacity to meet expectations of the Samson option? This will depend, at least in part, upon the effect of pertinent territorial concessions upon the other, and logically prior, six nuclear weapons functions and on the precise manner in which the Oslo Process might encourage or discourage last resort military options. It is important to recall that although resort to a Samson option by Israel would reveal the complete failure of all essential security functions - it is a resort that should certainly be approached only with overwhelming reluctance - meeting the requirements for a Samson option would not be unimportant. Israeli preparations for last resort operations could play a decisive role in enhancing nuclear deterrence, preemption and warfighting requirements.

Mr. Prime Minister. Planners must now begin to examine closely the effects of Oslo on Samson option credibility from the standpoint of enhanced nuclear deterrence, enhanced preemption capabilities, and enhanced warfighting potential. As part of this examination, these planners should also consider a related question: To what extent, if any, does the Oslo Process encourage enemy state preemptions against the State of Israel? Should, for example, Israeli leaders, responding to the enlarged security risks generated by Oslo I and II, try to reduce the perceived vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces (probably by some combination of multiplication/dispersion/hardening), enemy state leaders could come to believe, erroneously, that Jerusalem was preparing for first-strike attacks. Such erroneous beliefs could become even more likely if Israel should seek simultaneously further reductions in force vulnerabilities via apt forms of active and passive defenses.

There are pertinent ironies here. In seeking to stabilize deterrence by signaling an enemy/enemies that its own nuclear forces are not vulnerable to disarming first-strikes - i.e., that these forces are exclusively for second-strike, "assured destruction" purposes, Israel could create the impression that it was preparing to strike first. In this situation, Israel's attempts to convince enemy states that it was not preparing for preemption could backfire, offering new incentives to these enemy states to "preempt" themselves.

An alternative strategy for Israel would be to deliberately disguise efforts at nuclear force protection from enemy states, making these efforts less detectable, but such subterfuge would almost certainly be self-defeating and would carry substantial added risks. Should Israel's enemies calculate that Jerusalem's nuclear forces were vulnerable to first-strike attacks, they would likely want to exploit current but potentially transient Israeli weakness. Also, because too great an Israeli force vulnerability - a vulnerability occasioned at least in part by Oslo - could encourage Israel to strike first, and because Israel's enemies would understand this calculation, Israel's enemies could have compelling reasons to launch prompt "preemptive" attacks.

Mr. Prime Minister. The elements of nuclear strategy, especially in the Middle East, are remarkably subtle and complex. Depending upon a broad variety of interrelated variables, including the Oslo Process, these elements could determine the probability and intensity of a regional nuclear war.The foregoing Memorandum suggests that the Oslo Accords are indeed increasing Israel's dependence upon nuclear strategy. Whether or not such increasing dependence will ultimately enlarge or reduce the risks and consequences of regional nuclear war remains to be studied. It goes without saying that such study should now become an inquiry of absolutely overriding importance. I hope that your Government's best strategic planners are listening.

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including: APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980); SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, Heath, 1986); and TERRORISM AND GLOBAL SECURITY: THE NUCLEAR THREAT (Westview, 1987). He lectures widely in Israel on strategic matters, at such venues as the National Defense College (IDF), The Dayan Forum, BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Likud Security Group, Likud Knesset Members, etc. Professor Beres debated the Oslo Process with Maj.Gen. (Res.) Shlomo Gazit (former Head of IDF Intelligence Branch) in the June/July 1995 issue of MIDSTREAM. Recent articles were coauthored with AMB. Zalman Shoval (VANDERBILT JOURNAL OF TRANSNATIONAL LAW) and COL. (IDF/Res.) Yoash Tsiddon Chatto (TEMPLE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW).

 HOME  Maccabean  comments