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.