Israeli WMD

Thinking about the question of Israeli WMD, I keep circling around two core questions –

“Is it OK for Israel to have them?”

and if it is OK, as my knee-jerk reaction so far has suggested,

“Why is it OK for Israel to have them, and not the Arab states?”

Commenter poikilotherm suggests a framework for the question:

1. “What are the “rights” of nations, how do we decide what our rights are vs anothers rights, how do we mediate disputes, how are these rights limited by othernations, and is a WMD unique enough to deserve particular concern?” That’s as opposed to

2. “On balance, is it better for Israel to have the bomb than no?”

The first one is a doctoral dissertation (or a post on Oxblog…), the second is one I think I can roll around and make something of in a quickly-written blog post.

I’ll expand the question to include the issue of Arab WMD, and reframe it as

“On balance is it better for Israel to have the bomb or not, and if they do, is it better for them to have the bomb alone or not?”
I’m going to focus on the Bomb, as opposed to biological or chemical agents. The reality is that Israel has the technical capability to make pretty much anything in either group, but short of Aziz’s ‘germs that target Arabs’ weapon, I don’t see how any of them help the Israelis given their style of warfare.

I’ll also point out that given the interpenetration of Israeli civilian and military life, and the broad training necessary down to the field soldier level to effectively make use of those kind (bio and chem) weapons, it would be difficult (certainly not impossible) for Israel to deploy them in secret.

I’m also going to ignore the historic/moral issues – i.e. that Israel isn’t entitled to WMD because it is an illegitimate colonial state, or that it is entitled to WMD because it is an outpost of G-d, and Jews have some special right to weapons because of the Holocaust.

Both are interesting barroom discussions, but to me have little to do with the issue at hand.

I believe that Israeli possession of WMD has been a good thing, because I believe that it has most likely restrained Israel’s enemies but has restrained Israel as well. I think that this dynamic is about to change, and that this change will have some pretty serious consequences.

Let me explain.

The current reality (over the last 25 years) is that Israel is surrounded by states which would, if they could, invade and occupy it. Whether this would end with the destruction of the Israeli political state, or with the death of the Israeli people is immaterial; I’ll stipulate that Israel has a right to survive as a state (take that as an axiom).

There are two more key assumptions, both of which are, I believe strongly defendable:

1) That Israel is not territorially ambitious, which feeds
2) That Israel is not interested in destroying the nations surrounding it except as a part of destroying their capability to attack Israel (i.e. Israel is happy to coexist)

Both of these are debatable, but I’ll suggest that in the context of this issue, if Israel intended to use its WMD to conquer territory or destroy Arab countries, they’ve had roughly twenty-five years to do so, and haven’t.

Those states have available to them both their conventional armies, which are not insignificant (although the whole “why are the Arab Armies ineffective” thing is worth a discussion), and they have the Palestinian people, who the Arab states maintain as proxies against Israel. The entire Palestinian population is not a threat to Israel, but a significant enough number of them are that they are an effective force.

The armies can’t win, so they don’t attack, but they are relatively restrained in the kinds of tools and support they offer the Palestinian population. Why is that?

I’ll suggest that one of the restraints is the threat that Israel would, if seriously under siege, use nukes. There are a variety of things they could so with them, and there are people who know lots more than I do about but I’ll suggest three:

1. destroy the oil fields – this is a threat both to the Arab countries which would go broke and to the West
2. destroy the Arab armies in place – which would lead to loss of control by the leadership of the Arab countries so targeted

note that these two would have ‘relatively’ low casualty rates, as the much of the population isn’t near the oil fields or military bases (which tend to be Israel-facing)

3. destroy the Arab societies by destroying their population centers

I have read theories that they would destroy Mecca and Medina, but have to believe that they wouldn’t do that since it would enrage all Muslims to the point of attacking.

The people who run the Arab governments aren’t stupid, they understand the threat, and in turn have to modulate the level of threat they present to Israel. Supporting Arafat and Hamas with small arms is one thing; with tanks and major weapons systems is another.

So I’ll suggest that the threat of the Israeli bomb has moderated the behavior of Israel’s enemies, and that’s a good thing.

I’ll suggest that it has also moderated the behavior of Israel.

Here I’m stepping further out past what I know anything about to what makes sense to me.

I have done business with a fair number of Israelis (Persians and Saudis too; no Palestinians unfortunately), and being the Nosy Parker that I am, tend to ask them questions about Israel and Israeli politics and the Middle East.

And I notice that my memory of talks in the 70’s was of the perceived imminent threat to Israel’s existence – which was the justification for massive, hair-trigger responses to any threats. I don’t notice that as strongly now.

Whether this is because of the Israeli military record (which is pretty damn good) or because they know they live under the nuclear umbrella is a good question. I’ll suggest that the latter has to have some effect.

And to the extent that it causes the Israeli decision makers to adopt a more – relaxed – posture that’s a damn good thing. If it lessens the sense of threat faced by the Israelis, that’s good – not for ‘touchy-feely’ reasons, but because it makes the Israelis less likely to respond massively and suddenly to perceived threats. Their DEFCON is lower, and is harder to elevate.

So I believe that the Israeli WMD have contributed to stability in the region, which translates into fewer deaths, which I take as a good thing.

Now I’ll editorialize for a minute, and make a point that deserves it’s own post, and will probably get one later.

Pluralistic, capitalist states are expansionist in subtle and powerful ways. These have more to do with culture and trade than conquest.

Totalitarian states also tend to be expansionist, but the form of expansion for them tends to be military.

This means that I’m inherently more trusting of pluralist capitalist states than I am of totalitarian ones.

In the case of the totalitarian Arab states this innate tendency is amplified by the ideological basis of Islamist thought, about which more later.

This tends to make me inherently distrustful of totalitarian Islamist states with WMD. His deserves amplification and support, and I’ll step up and do so.

But my final point is that Israel and to a lesser extent the U.S. are working against the clock. There will be an Islamist nuke sometime in the intermediate future. Whether it is built, bought, or stolen is immaterial.

The issue is whether we can lower the take the momentum out of the Islamist movement before then.

One way will be to try and push a resolution of the Palestinian question – a resolution that leaves the Palestinians with a viable state. The leadership will have to change for that to happen (we may seeing that now). Let’s hope.

24 thoughts on “Israeli WMD”

  1. To boil it down further, arab states have called and in some cases still call for the destruction of Israel. Israel has not called for the destruction of any Arab state. Arab states have fielded armies for the purpose of destroying Israel. Israel has not fielded any army for the purpose of destroying any Arab state.

  2. The core of this problem is very, very simple. It has nothing to do with weapons, and to a large extent the weapons are a distraction.

    As long as the Arab world believes in destroying the state of Israel and killing many of its inhabitants, and pressures other states to facilitate their aim, and Arabs remain steeped in hate propaganda designed to create such beliefs, then THAT is the problem.

    Genocidal hate is the problem. The question of weapons is just a question of relative means.

    As long as that remains true, therefore, Israel will develop WMDs and not give them up. Would, in fact, be beyond stupid to do so. There is NO guarantee, including the USA’s, that it could afford to rely on.

    But this same issue indirectly feeds into the “comfort level” debate in the USA as well, hence the discussion about “right to WMD”.

    The reason the USA wishes to keep these weapons out of the hands of Islamic countries who preach this hate is ridiculously obvious after 9/11. Let’s see, suicidal Islamist blood-cult that hates Americans and shown a willingness to cause mass casualties in America wants nuclear weapons and other WMDs. If the USA believed Israel’s nuclear weapons presented a similar potential threat via Jewish terrorists in New York, Los Angeles et. al., it would be looking at a war against Israel. Obviously, it doesn’t.

    Countries don’t have rights. It’s a fictional concept. Countries may be protected by agreed-upon rules of behaviour, as long as their actions don’t create enough of a problem to justify throwing the rules away in the eyes of interested and capable parties.

    Any country can choose to develop weapons of mass destruction. Its neighbours, and capable global powers like the USA, can in return choose their response. That it. That’s all.

  3. Joe:

    The question of whether nations have ‘rights’ is actually a pretty interesting one, and one that illuminates the difference between the European and U.S. positions on a number of things…

    …but in this case, you’re right. A more direct way to rephrase would be:

    “Will the U.S. tolerate Israeli WMD?”


  4. I’d say that the Arab states are outlawed from WMD from a strictly pragmatic perspective. They centralize responsibility at the “executive” level. In other words, dictators and madmen shouldnt have their fingers on the button.

    I think its equally pragmatic to assert that Israeli nukes are not really in any danger of being misused (not the same way that, say, a Pakistani nuke potentially could be).

    Im more interested in the Israeli WMD question from the angle of, “does it need them to achieve its security goals” (firmly placing it as a defensive issue). But of course given Israel’s arms relationship to China, you have to wonder if there wont ultimately be transfer of technologyy outwards, obviously not to other Middle East states (that would threaten Israel as well), but other regions like Central Asia.

  5. The problem with our nuclear proliferation is that certain states are not a threat with nuclear weapons and some are. There is a difference between Israel, England or France and North Korea have the bomb.

    The key to nuclear proliferation is three fold:
    First if possible regime change for certain countries is a necessity.
    Second, a nuclear program should concentrate on restricting rogue states from getting nuclear weapons.
    Third, SDI should be accepted and expanded among our allies. This reduces the utlity of missles technology.

    Good piece,

    Tom Donelson

  6. Aziz –

    I have a hard time imagining Israel transferring WMD tech outward (although the whole South African nuke issue may lean against that); it would be the deathknell for their relatiuonship with the U.S., and while they don’t need us militarily, they sure need us economically.

    Tom –

    I’m a lot more *worried* about TEU-loads of nukes (a 20′ shipping container) than I am about a hypothetical ICBM.

    The SDI effort is interesting tech, and I’d probably spend enough to keep development on a simmer. Deployment at this point in time, with this maturity of tech isn’t really sensible, I think.


  7. Each of the Arab countries in question are signatories of

    1. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
    2. The Chemical Weapons Convention and
    3. The Biological Weapons Convention.

    Each of them, therefore, has voluntarily accepted the restriction. They have voluntarily foresworn the right to hold any of these classes of WMD. No argument on basic “rights” is required – the Arab states voluntarily gave up those rights.

    Israel has refused to sign these treaties – therefore Israel has never voluntarily given up any perceived right to hold them and the argument of “illegality” doesn’t arise (the only other non-signatory States of the NPT are India and Pakistan). The Arab States submitted themselves to laws and have to abide by them – Israel didn’t and so (arguably) doesn’t.


  8. And as the example of N. Korea shows, signing that piece of paper means so much. Of course, it would mean something for Israel or the US to sign such an agreement, as we tend to stick by them, but I don’t for a minute trust any dictatorship to honor any international convention or treaty that they have signed.

  9. Jeff, that is a part of the point I was trying to make. They signed the pieces of paper and so their subsequent attempts to proliferate were illegal acts. Without signatures on the pieces of paper it could be argued they would be acting within their rights.

    Issues of abstract morality don’t enter into it.


  10. to be honest, I’m not sure what Israel gains from denying its WMD capabilities. What possible advantage is there? since they are not signatories to the NNPT it isnt like they are in violation of anything by posession.

  11. Issues of abstract morality are indeed not germane when discussing nation-states, which are amoral institutions at best. Likewise, discussing legal issues is also largely meaningless and they may provide excuses for action but never the actual reasons.

    Nations do what they do because of the political pressures of interests within the confines of the power to do them.

    The Chinese poses all matter of potential military threats to US interests, but China is strong enough so that nothing less than World War 3 is going to take China’s nukes from them.

    As Israel does not threaten anyone with the military capability and will to disarm them and WHO IS OUT OF RANGE OF THEIR NUKES, they will keep their nukes. Other states trying to get WMD which threaten people who are strong enough to disarm them AT A COST acceptable to the people trying to do so, will suffer the fate of Saddam Hussain. It is that simple.

    States are not about morality or law, just interests and power. All of them. Always.

  12. What gain from denying? Implies they aren’t all the way there and on hair trigger. Which means good behaviour on the other side might keep them there.

    For instance: “We will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” That could mean “all we have to do is clip some pre-assembled pieces together in about 20 minutes, but since none are actually assembled, we have not introduced nuclear weapons.” Implicit point: “…and if we’re not given any reason to go further, it will stay that way.”

    The deniability also makes the country less of a political target for having them. Sure, you can say “everybody knows…” or “they’re believed to have…” but that’s a much smaller political “radar signature” than a government who admits having them. Not sure why, but it does seem to work that way.

  13. I dunno. it seems that the semantic benefit from saying ” we wont be the first to introduce nukes” is pretty small compared to th ebenefit from saying “we have nukes on subs aimed at Damascus and Tehran. FYI.”

    and anyway everyone pretty much assumes that the nukes are weaponized and aimed there anyway. In fact the conventional wisdom of even well-educated people in the middle east that I have met is that Israel has nukes pointed at Mecca and Medina. It’s just a sort of fatalistic thing – “yeah, they have the nukes pointed, you’d be insane to think otherwise.”

    aside, given my religious convictions, I dont think that pointing a nuke at Mecca means anything. I just believe as a matter of faith that its impossible to harm the Kaaba by any force of Man. This is a pretty basic axiom in Islamic theology. Thus any rampant fears about Israeli nukes aimed at Mecca are in a sense an admission of a lack of faith. Aim away.

  14. “can Israel be any less of a political target?”

    It can always be more of one. The semantic benefit may seem mild, but in practice it seems to operate and has worked for others as well. As for the Arab regimes, I’m pretty sure they know the score. A classic “have your cake, eat it too” approach, in addition to the (primary) diplomacy benefits.

    Re: Mecca. There are a lot of axioms in Islamic theology crying out for testing – but if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather leave that particular axiom off the list.

  15. Perry –

    I disagree pretty strongly that nations even believe they are rational in their international relations (rationality is implicit in your construction that they act out of interest). I’ll suggest that if you amend your construction to “States are not about morality or law, just percieved interests and power. All of them. Always. it’s closer, but still not true.

    Nations act based on “moral interests” all the time. Wahabbism is a moral interest, not an economic or physical one – they want to improve the world by making it devout. The U.S. often intervenes abroad (not just militarily) because of morally-based interest groups.

    People are funny, complex creatures. Countries, as collections of people are even more so.


  16. < "On balance is it better for Israel to have the bomb or not, and if they do, is it better for them to have the bomb alone or not?">

    I’m not sure it’s the best question. When the calls come out for a WMD free Middle East, screaming ‘hypocrite’ and ‘we want our WMDs’ isn’t going to convince a lot of people, no matter how reasonable it may be.

    So I think the question should really be; what would have to happen in Syria and Iran et al for a WMD free Middle East to become a realistic possibility?

  17. A: The political equivalent of a sex change, or maybe a species change. End to financial, moral, and logistical support for terrorism. No more terrorism practiced from their soil. Acceptance of Israel and normalization of relations. Complete change in both the curriculum and the media to inculcate tolerance instead of hate. Time measured in years required for the culture to process that, and recover from 40-50 years of hate propaganda that rivals anything the Nazis put out (and often builds on or uses that very source).

    Basically, it will not happen in any politically relevant time frame. Nor are the calls for a WMD free Middle East. The call is for keeping WMD out of the hands of those states who are not trusted to have them, because their possession of same threatens or potentially threatens the USA.

    Israel isn’t on that list, but the Arab states and Iran have behaved themselves onto it. There’s nothing unfair about that – they did this to themselves as a long-term, conscious choice.

    Q: “what would have to happen in Syria and Iran et al for a WMD free Middle East to become a realistic possibility?”

  18. Well, it was a rhetorical question, but you did give the only possible answer.

    But there are, in fact, calls for a WMD free Middle East. Because they’re coming from Syria may make you want to discount them as not serious, but strange irrational things eminating from Arab countries do often find an echo box in China, Russia and the EU, and of course the UN.

    I think it will come up again and become a major talking point. When that happens, I think that raising the question I raised, which leads to the answer you gave, would be the more powerful response. The problem with defending Israel’s rationale for possesing the bomb is that only reasonable and intelligent people are going to grasp the argument, and fewer still are going to admit they grasp it.

    Sometimes it’s just better to raise a question than to answer one. Or in this case the answer would be, “there’d be no reason for Israel to possess WMDs, if only …”, and then the question answers itself.

    Plus, finally, if it’s possible to guide thinking in a direction that would actually one day allow for a WMD free Middle East, why not do it?

  19. Aziz wrote:
    to be honest, I’m not sure what Israel gains from denying its WMD capabilities. What possible advantage is there? since they are not signatories to the NNPT it isnt like they are in violation of anything by posession.

    As far as I understand, US Law requires that the US cut off funding to any country who develops or possesses nuclear weapons who is not a member of the NNPT

    “The double standards that scream at you whenever you see the words “weapons of mass destruction” cannot be excused on the grounds that Israel is abiding by international regulations. Israel refuses to sign any treaty regulating the use of nuclear weapons. All correspondence concerning the nuclear non-proliferation agreement, the nuclear test ban treaty and other copiously negotiated agreements on weapons of mass destruction go into the Israeli government’s rubbish bins. Yet Israel receives $3bn* (£2bn) of aid, annually, from the US. This is despite legislation, the Symington Accord, to prevent US governments from granting aid to countries who develop nuclear weapons outside of international control and agreement.”

    from an article entitled “Israel’s arms inspector
    by Hilary Wainwright, The Guardian [UK]
    October 4, 2002

    further background on US aid to Israel:

    An inter-ministerial team headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, is working on a proposal requesting American economic assistance that could top $10 billion.
    from: PM plans to ask U.S. for aid that could top $10 billion
    By Amnon Barzilai and Natan Guttman, Ha’aretz
    Tuesday, October 22, 2002

    * The Cost of Israel to U.S. Taxpayers: True Lies About US Aid To Israel
    By Richard H. Curtiss, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
    January 8th, 2003

  20. oh yeah and by the way:

    ” SYDNEY (Reuters) – Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara has said his government is willing to sign a treaty making the entire Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.


    Arab diplomats at the United Nations said U.S. ally Israel was the only country in the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction and added they would seek a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring the region free of such deadly arms.


    “It is better for the Americans, for the Israelis, for every citizen on earth, especially in the Middle East, and it is good for the American forces in Iraq, to see that the whole Middle East is a zone free from all mass destruction weapons,” Shara said.

    “Also it is very useful to see this taking place because in this case no terrorist, as the Americans say and some Europeans say, no terrorists can have these mass destruction weapons with them.”

    from article “Syria Backs Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone
    Reuters Newswire
    April 16, 2003

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