Israel, Palestine, and the Growing Threat of Nuclear War

By Louis Rene Beres

Some subjects should be approached with fear and trembling. One such subject concerns nuclear war in the Middle East. Because the creation of a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel would heighten this prospect considerably, ongoing developments in that unfortunate region should be viewed with a special kind of apprehension.

Architects of the Oslo Agreements suggest, of course, that a "two-state solution" to the Palestinian problem would substantially reduce the risk of another major war in the Middle East. After all, we are told, even after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, this problem is the festering sore that gives rise to all other rivalries. Once we have "justice" for the Palestinians, the Arab governments and Iran will begin to create area-wide harmony and comprehensive peace settlements could be negotiated readily from the Mediterranean and Red Seas to the Persian Gulf.

But as we should have learned from the 1991 Gulf War, and the recent experience of the Rabin/Peres governments, the conventional Oslo wisdom is unwise! For the most part, Iranian and Arab state inclinations to war have nothing to do with the Palestinians. Even if the Netanyahu government were to continue with Oslo concessions, these inclinations would continue, especially from Syria and Libya as well as Iran. Indeed, if Israel were to coexist with a new state of Palestine, the Jewish state's vulnerability to armed attack by hostile neighbors would increase markedly. And if this diminished safety were accompanied by the spread of unconventional weapons to hostile states, which now seems plausible, Israel could find itself confronting not only war, but genocide.

Why? Most importantly, a new state of Palestine would preoccupy Israeli military forces to a much greater extent than did the intifada. Even if it were able to resist takeover by one of the other Islamic states in the region, a takeover accomplished either directly or by insurgent surrogates, Palestine would inevitably become a favored launching-point for renewed terrorism against Israel. Various promises notwithstanding, Islamic insurgents would continue to celebrate violence against Israel as the essence of "national liberation."

Recognizing an "improved" configuration of forces vis-a-vis Israel, a larger number of enemy states would calculate that they now confront a smaller, more beleaguered adversary. And they would understand that a coordinated effort by certain countries that possess or are in the process of acquiring ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel could possibly endanger Israel's very survival. Taken together with the fact that global support for Israel is always fickle, and that individual or combined chemical/biological warfare capabilities could bring enormous harm to Israel, the creation of Palestine could tip the balance of power in the Middle East decisively.

In considering the costs and benefits of a Palestinian state vis-a-vis other possible remedies, the full strategic implications for Israel of an independent Palestine should be carefully appraised. If, in the end, such independence became the cause of a nuclear war in the region, everyone, Palestinians as well as Jews, would lose.

But how, exactly, would a nuclear war begin in a reconfigured Middle East? One possibility suggested by the Iraqi Scud attacks in 1991 would be by Arab or Iranian first strikes against Israel. These strikes could be nuclear (although this would be at least several years away, as nuclear warheads and bombs are not yet available) or nonnuclear. In either scenario, Israel--especially if it feels perilously close to defeat---might resort to nuclear retaliation.

Alternatively, Israel, believing that substantial enemy attack--chemical, biological, conventional, or nuclear--is imminent, could decide to preempt. If, as we might expect, this preemption were entirely nonnuclear, it could still fail to prevent the anticipated attack against Israel. Here, Israeli nuclear weapons, having failed in their mission to support conventional preemption by deterring enemy retaliation, might also have to be used for purposes of nuclear warfighting. Israel has much to fear. Facing a growing number of adversaries with ballistic missiles and with an interest in nuclear warheads, Jerusalem knows that transformation of Judea/Samaria (West Bank) and Gaza into Palestine could provide its enemies with the means and the incentives to destroy the Jewish State once and for all. Deprived of essential "strategic depth," Israel could become seriously vulnerable to total defeat. Anguished by a possible end to the Third Temple, the nation's leaders would begin to think seriously about nuclear weapons as a last resort (the so-called "Samson Option"). It follows that however disturbing and problematic Israel's control of the remaining territories may be, the still likely alternative of Palestinian independence must be worked out with extraordinary care. Otherwise, Palestine, looking first very much like Lebanon, could wind up as Armageddon, a metamorphosis that would favor neither Israeli nor Palestinian.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D. Princeton) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University and is the author of SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL'S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1986) and many other major books on nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

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