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Testimony to the mood now prevalent in Israeli society, with massive encouragement from the political and military establishment, can be found in one of the questions pollster Mina Tzemah put to respondents in the survey the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth published last weekend.

"Under what circumstances should Israel respond with nuclear weapons?" was the question asked of those included in a representative sampling of Israeli society. The replies to the question are much less important than the question itself. According to Tzemah, it's clear to everyone that Israel has nuclear weapons and the only question remaining is when it should use them.

Beyond the lack of proportion between the Iraqi threat and the need for a nuclear response to it that is implicit in the question, it is worth asking why it is that the stronger Israel becomes militarily, the less confidence the public and its leaders have in its deterrence capability. This has reached the point where they need to threaten Judgement Day weapons to confront abstract threats that are very unlikely to be carried out.

The present Iraqi crisis is once again providing us with the opportunity to reenact the regular ritual of increasingly frequent Israeli threats, designed, according to those doing the threatening, to strengthen Israeli deterrence. They believe this deterrence has been undermined from the time when Israel didn't react to the Iraqi missile attacks in 1991. According to the The New York Times, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is explaining to the U.S. administration that Israel will react to an Iraqi attack no matter what the circumstances.

In other words, there won't necessarily be a connection between the Israeli response and the damage caused by the Iraqi missiles. An Israeli military response must follow, because the policy of restraint will be seen by the Arabs as weakness.

In an interview in The New York Times, David Ivry states that Iraq is in fact much weaker than in 1991, its army is less effective, and it has fewer missiles. But Ivry, one of the shapers of national security policy, who has been the commander of the Israel Air Force, the director-general of the Defense Ministry and an ambassador to Washington, hastens to add that in his opinion the present tendency in Israel favors responding this time. Otherwise, he says, Israel will lose its deterrence, and if Israel doesn't react this time, either, countries in the region are likely to think that we have no confidence in our ability.

And if that's not enough, to emphasize the severity of the continuing damage to Israel's deterrence capability, most of the spokesmen are making a point of emphasizing over and over again the damage caused by the unilateral exit from Lebanon, and the connection between it and the outbreak of the intifada.

The fact that this approach has become dominant among those who determine security policy testifies not only to their lack of confidence, but to a defective understanding about the essence of deterrence. It is a serious mistake not to distinguish clearly between deterrence against countries and their armies, and deterrence against suicide terrorists. The attempt to link the readiness of Palestinians to commit suicide on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon is groundless.

Israeli deterrence was not harmed in the least because of its unilateral exodus from Lebanon, or because it didn't react to the Iraqi missile attacks. Not one of the leaders in the region will start a war only because he thinks Israel has been weakened by the withdrawal from Lebanon, or because of its restraint in 1991. The claim that the intifada would not have broken out had the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] not withdrawn from Lebanon originates in a total lack of understanding, and a disregard of the social and political processes that have taken place in the territories during the past decade.

Anyone who states that Israel must respond to an Iraqi attack, if only to deter the Palestinian suicide bombers, proves that he hasn't learn a thing during the past two years. However, the central problem that will face Israel if it is attacked by Iraq is the choice of means and targets for the response. An Israeli response using conventional weapons will be a drop in the ocean of destruction that the U.S. Army is planning for the Iraqis. Therefore, a response that is meant to transmit the Israeli message has to be unconventional. From here it's a short distance to the many hints by politicians and senior officers about the need to use strategic weapons.

And herein lies the problem. Because when one severs the connection between the damage caused and the means of response, one undermines the reliability of deterrence instead of strengthening it. When deterrence is designed only to punish and to take revenge, or to placate the public at home, it loses some of its effectiveness. There is no doubt that in the case of a serious Iraqi strike that included weapons of mass destruction, Israel would have a just pretext for an appropriate response. But why declare from every platform that Israel will respond in any case, even if an Iraqi missile falls in the heart of the desert?

To remove any doubt about the policy to be followed by Israel when the American war against Iraq breaks out, Sharon made it clear to senior administration officials that Israel's decision not to react in 1991 undermined its ability to deter an enemy attack. In addition, he emphasized that the Israeli public will demand a reaction if Iraq attacks. Thus Sharon completes an interesting circle.

First you frighten the public, inflate improbable threats, emphasize the continuing damage to deterrence, hint at the need to use strategic weapons, and finally you tell the Americans that we have to respond, since the public demands it. And if that is the public's demand - then it is also entirely legitimate for Mina Tzemach to ask the public if it thinks the time has come to use nuclear weapons.