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Obliteration and Obligation: The Nuclear Defense of Israel

By Gregory Scoblete

Iran's defiant pursuit of nuclear technology has raised the specter of a nuclear war in the Middle East. It has also led to a debate over what role, if any, the U.S. should play in securing Israel against what appears to be an inevitable nuclear threat from the Islamic Republic.

Advocates of extending America's defense commitment to Israel argue that America's current posture is too ambiguous to sufficiently ward off an Iranian nuclear attack. Only an institutionalized commitment, such as the inclusion of Israel in NATO, or an unequivocal extension of America's so-called "nuclear umbrella" is deemed sufficient.

Israeli membership in NATO has been proposed by raft of analysts, including the Heritage Foundation's John Hulsman and Ronald Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Some member nations, such as the Czech Republic, have publicly welcomed the idea, while NATO's "Mediterranean Dialogue" has sought to bolster cooperation between the two parties (and several other nations in the region) as well.

However such a step would be unwise, at least for the immediate future. First, NATO is not exactly firing on all cylinders. Bereft of its original rationale and struggling to meet its urgent commitment to Afghanistan, it hardly makes sense to toss the far more fraught and combustible issue of the Arab/Israeli conflict onto its plate.

NATO was formed for a specific purpose, to defend Western Europe from a Soviet attack. The borders in this instance were clear, as were the combatants. NATO offered protection to nations that were, individually, weak before a much stronger conventional enemy. In the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the borders are unsettled, the combatants are not fixed armies but armed guerilla groups that blend into the populace of Israel's neighbors, and Israel is the stronger party.

Admitting Israel to NATO would open up a host of questions. How, for instance, would NATO interpret Article V of its charter which stipulates that an armed attack on one will be deemed an attack on all? The language was invoked only once in the organization's history: on 9/11. Yet Israel suffers serious terrorist attacks on a more routine basis, including near daily rocket fire from the Gaza strip. Would NATO be bound to attack Hamas in Gaza? Israel is also attacked by forces such as Hezbollah with ties to Syria and Iran. Would NATO, then, be thrust into conflict with Iran and Syria? Would NATO have been summoned to strike at Lebanon in the summer of 2006? Given some NATO members reluctance to commit forces to Afghanistan, it's difficult to see them rushing into the Levant.

That leaves reserving NATO to act only in the event of a conventional land invasion of Israel. Such an invasion, while not impossible, is certainly implausible given the history of such attempts, and the peace (however cold) that prevails between Israel and its immediate neighbors.

Israeli membership in NATO is not per-se a bad idea but it is premature. If Israel and the Palestinians reached a binding accommodation, membership for Israel would make more sense. NATO's role would be both clearly defined and more achievable: keeping the peace instead of making it (although there would still be the thorny issue of Hezbollah).

Then there is the suggestion that Israel be placed under America's nuclear umbrella, whereby the U.S. would respond to a nuclear attack on Israel with its own nuclear forces. According to the Brookings Institute's Bruce Riedel, such a proposal was put to President Clinton by Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000. It has been aired most recently by Hillary Clinton, who suggested that the U.S. would "obliterate" Iran were it to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.

Yet this presumptive obliteration obligation is, at best, superfluous. The principle reason behind the so-called nuclear umbrella was to both dissuade an adversary with a much greater nuclear arsenal (i.e. the Soviet Union) from attacking non-nuclear nations and, in so doing, to dampen the urge of non-nuclear states to seek nuclear weapons in self defense. The umbrella kept the Soviets at bay and the nuclear club elite.

Neither rationale applies to Israel. They are already a nuclear weapons state and their arsenal is, and will remain, orders of magnitude more destructive than any presumptive Iranian capability. Some argue that because Israel is small, any nuclear attack would incapacitate its ability to launch a counter-attack, thereby diminishing the credibility of Israel's nuclear deterrent. Such statements overlook the considerable investment Israel has made in insuring against precisely just such a scenario. Though the details of its nuclear force are understandably secret, Israel is reported to possess an arsenal of some 200 nuclear weapons, capable of being launched from land, air and sea (via three submarines).

Were Iran to precipitate a nuclear exchange with Israel, the results would be calamitous for both sides. In a study for the Center For Strategic and International Studies in 2007, Anthony Cordesman concluded that Israel could lose between 200,000 to 800,000 people while Iran could suffer as many as 16 to 28 million fatalities. The large disparity in death toll derives in part from Israel's quantitative and qualitative nuclear superiority: they would deliver significantly more weapons at much higher yields (i.e. destructive force) than Iran, and far more accurately to boot.

Though Iran is a large country, its vulnerabilities are numerous: Tehran, a city of some 15 million, sits in a "topographic basin with a mountain reflector" Cordesman wrote. "Nearly ideal nuclear killing ground." Iran also lacks the kind of medical, civil and missile defenses that the Israelis possess. These weaknesses led Cordesman to conclude that though Israel would suffer grievously, it could emerge from such an exchange. On the other hand, he wrote, "Iranian recovery is not possible in the normal sense of the term."

If Iran is undeterrable, as some suggest, then they are undeterrable whether threatened by Israeli or American nukes. If the Mullahs don't wish to embrace national suicide, then Israel's nuclear weapons are a sufficient deterrent.

Israel has, admirably and with no small measure of U.S. assistance, procured the requisite tools for her defense. They are rightfully an American ally by virtue of political and cultural affinity and have, for years, been the largest recipient of U.S. aid. Their security is not in doubt. Given that, and given that America has a multitude of foreign policy priorities of far greater importance (Pakistan, China, and Russia, to name a few), the U.S. should not seek to bind itself with Cold War-era security guarantees.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

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