Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy. Louis René Beres. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.
Since the 1950s, Israel’s intentionally ambiguous nuclear strategy has been a fundamental part of the country’s security stance. Professor Louis René Beres, a long-time commentator on this strategy, has combined a variety of his past writings into a volume that, in a sustained and systematic manner, analyzes the background, options, and key dilemmas Israel’s policy-makers face in formulating and refining the relevant set of policies in the changing Middle East of today. As such, the Surviving Amid Chaos provides a good summary of previous essays, lectures, and speeches rather than a departure from previous thinking.
For students of strategy, the volume offers a clear programmatic explication of guidelines for pursuing a national nuclear strategy that seem eminently useful, if at times almost taken-for-granted. What is new are two emphases: first on emerging complexities of today’s circumstances, in which Israel is surrounded by failing or weak states and various types of hybrid threats comprising a diverse array of actors with the means of destruction at their disposal; and second on the importance of the interaction between these new circumstances in which Israel must decide its own course. In short, Beres cautions that proper strategic analysis must always take into account multiple threats and how they interface within a wider perspective on contemporary developments.
Divided into an introduction and six chapters the volume is based primarily on material that Beres has published during the past two and a half decades. Indeed, a careful perusal of the chapter notes reveals that though many are still relevant, many are dated, and, by my rough count, the most cited author in the notes is Beres himself.
The introduction provides a useful overview of the main considerations for any nuclear strategy, including an historical appreciation of developments, a regional and global view, and an effort for decision makers to think outside the box although he does not really offer any suggestions about how they should do so. The first chapter sets out the core reasons driving a need to possess nuclear weapons, explaining why Israel specifically needs a nuclear rather than a solely convention option and how these bear on issues of deterrence (e.g., highly improbable nuclear preemption) and strategic targeting. Chapter two deals with how decision-makers refine strategic choices, showing that nuclear options are always a part of a set of choices open to decision-makers and should be used as force multipliers. Chapter three is useful in outlining how the intentions and capabilities of enemies are deciphered and tailors these general insights toward how strategic thinking on the part of Israel should proceed. It contains rather mundane recommendations such as to keep thinking, finely calibrate threats, build options, or consider how one outcome could lead to another. Well of course! Chapter four is especially relevant to Israel, since it is about preserving a so called Samson Option—to die with one’s enemies, as in the Biblical story—less as a doctrinal emphasis on Jewish honor than as a part of communicating to create deterrence. Chapter five is devoted to law and strategy, bringing readers to questions of the laws of armed conflict, international human rights, and how the extradition and prosecution of terrorists can be used alongside more violent means, such as targeted assassinations. Chapter six forms the conclusion and describes a bleak view of today’s Middle East, marked by the breakdown of states, the possibility of a Second Cold War with Russia, and the continued proliferation of terrorist organizations.
The basic premise underlying the volume, one Beres states explicitly, is that Israel faces existential threats from multiple sources. In this sense, the volume is part of a genre of writings that can be characterized as Israel in the shadow of the Holocaust, a genre in which the country is always open to the risk of annihilation and is its own last bulwark against another Auschwitz. Yet, despite the declarations of certain politicians within and outside Israel, the only real threat bordering on existential is the Iranian nuclear one.
In fact, many of the traditional enemies of Israel—Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example—have become key allies, whether explicitly or implicitly. Moreover, the hybrid threats of terrorism or stronger means used by semi-state organizations—Hizballah’s rockets come to mind—are not, as most Israeli security experts have made abundantly clear, existential threats. Serious as they may be in affecting the fabric of Israeli society for a sustained period, they do not pose a danger to the very existence of Israel. Rather, as Beres’ analysis suggests, it is the alliance of Hizballah and Iran that may—a very big may—lead to the possibility of some kind of nuclear option employed against Israel. This proposition implies Iran’s intentions are toward using its nuclear weapons for offensive rather than deterrent purposes. In addition, it is somewhat difficult to accept the idea that Iran is somehow irrational in its strategic calculations in the sense that national self-preservation is not the highest or ultimate preference due to religious ideals. Thus, Beres assumes for certain decision-makers, such as the rulers of Iran, Islam allows or even demands a lack of self-preservation over the destruction of Israel.
Two further points make the volume worth reading. First Beres suggests ending Israel’s intentional nuclear ambiguity. As he carefully points out, this kind of coming-out may actually contribute to Israel’s deterrence. Second, he pleads for Israel—and other nuclear states—to clearly think about different forms of international cooperation. He suggests seeking a variety of coalition partnerships or multilateral frameworks within which Israel can pursue its interests. The recent moves by Israel to create security links with Greece and Cyprus and negotiating implicit agreements with Russia attest to these kinds of options.
Israelis and American should take note. Surviving Amid Chaos should be read not only by the scholarly nuclear strategy community, but also by decision-makers and security experts.
Eyal Ben-Ari taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is now senior research fellow at the Kinneret Center for Society, Security and Peace (Israel). He has carried out research on the Israeli and Japanese militaries, leadership in the militaries of industrial democracies, and on early childhood education in Japan.
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