Near the end of his tenure as Prime Minister, Shimon Peres stated thatIsrael would be willing to "give up the atom" if other states in the region achieved "full peace." Apart from so unprecedented a departure from longstanding national policy of "deliberate ambiguity" on nuclear weapons, a departure which might itself undermine Israel's security, any actual Israeli moves toward denuclearization could now place another nail in the country's coffin - a coffin already created by incremental and irreversible territorial surrenders. What follows has been written by the author of an early informed assessment of Israeli nuclear policy, SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (1986).
It is difficult to imagine nuclear weapons as anything other than inherently evil implements of destruction. Yet, there are circumstances wherein a state's possession of such weapons may be all that protects that state from catastrophic war or even genocide. Moreover, because such terrible weapons may deter international aggression, their possession could also protect neighboring states (friends and foes) from war related or even nuclear-inflicted harms. It follows that not all members of the Nuclear Club need be a menace; indeed, some may offer a distinct and indispensable benefit to world peace and security.
A case in point is the State of Israel. Should it be deprived of its nuclear forces because of misconceived hopes for peace, the Jewish State would become vulnerable to overwhelming and unspeakable attacks from certain enemy states. Although such existential vulnerability might be prevented in principle by instituting parallel forms of chemical/biological weapons disarmament among these enemy states, such parallel steps would never actually take place. After all, as we should have learned from post Gulf War efforts to identify Iraqi unconventional weapons operations, verification of compliance in these matters is exceedingly difficult. Such verification would be especially problematic where several states would be involved. And this is to say nothing about ongoing plans for nuclearization among particular enemy states, most notably Iran - plans that go forward clandestinely under the cover of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Nuclear weapons are not the problem per se. In the persistently bad neighborhood that is known popularly as the Middle East, the problem is a far-reaching and essentially unreconstructed Arab/Iranian commitment to "excise the Jewish cancer" that is Israel. Faced with this commitment, Jerusalem should soon understand that the "Peace Process" is little more than a temporary enemy expedient, a clever strategem designed to weaken Israel to the point where it can no longer defend itself. Significantly, this strategem, which is based upon a codified transferral of critical territories for wholly unsecured promises, is already succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of Arab and Iranian leaders. Should the Oslo Process be augmented by Israeli nuclear disarmament, and at a time when enemy states would only expand their own unconventional weapons activities, Israel's certain future would be to disappear.
There is more! Contrary to the conventional wisdom (which is almost always unwise), at least one Arab state that is now formally "at peace" with Israel remains effectively at war with the Jewish State. There can be little doubt that Egypt, should tactical opportunities arise, would quickly revert to its traditional stance, joining enthusiastically in joint Arab attacks against Israeli population centers and certain military targets. Syria, should it sometime sign a comparable peace agreement with Israel, would not hesitate to abrogate that agreement if Damascus felt the time were right for a gainful final assault. Here we must take special note of growing cooperation between Syria and Iran, which could soon menace Israel with formidable combinations of conventional and unconventional threats.
With nuclear weapons, Israel could deter enemy unconventional attacks and most large conventional aggressions. Moreover, with such weapons, Jerusalem could launch non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state hard targets that threaten Israel's annihilation. Without such weapons, such strikes would likely represent the onset of a much wider war because there would be no compelling threat of Israeli counterretaliation. Thus, Israel's nuclear weapons represent an impediment to the actual use of nuclear weapons and to the commencement of regional nuclear war.
Let us be candid. The former Prime Minister's stated willingness to "give up the atom" is a splendid example of what we international law professors call "naive legalism." Left to depend upon the security guarantees of Israel's mortal enemies, the Jewish State, denuclearized and incrementally dismembered by the "Peace Process," could not long endure. Indeed, as war and genocide need not necessarily be mutually exclusive, and as murderers in the missile age no longer need to transport victims to the gas, a denuclearized and dismembered Israel could invite another "Final Solution." But by maintaining indispensable military power in a hostile and increasingly anarchic region, Jerusalem - which assuredly harbors no interest whatsoever in the destruction of any other state - could ensure both its own survival and general area security. Of course, in the best of possible worlds, all unconventional weapons, chemical/biological as well as nuclear, would simply be eliminated. But as we still do not live in such a world, it is vital to realize that the weapons themselves are not the real problem, and that Israeli nuclear weapons are necessary to preserve the peace and to prevent nuclear war.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) Professor of International Law Purdue University, Department of Political Science is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He has lectured widely on these subjects in Israel, including at the National Defense College (IDF), Dayan Forum and Likud Security Group. Reprinted from "Ma'ariv" of June 25, 1997