Nuclear terrorism is one of the gravest threats to the world's security - so says United States President Barack Obama, who recently convened an international conference on the issue. In Israel, sunk in its own troubles, nuclear terrorism has elicited little interest until now. Beyond the dimensions of the threat, nuclear terrorism poses two unique problems in terms of deterrence. One is that the elements liable to employ nuclear terrorism are nihilist in nature - they are prepared to pay any price for Israel's destruction and are therefore not given to deterrence. The other is the absence of an "address" for purposes of deterrence and retaliation.
Nuclear terrorism is liable to be employed against Israel with the aim of causing unprecedented destruction, deterring it from offensive moves like striking at the Iranian atom or defeating Hezbollah and Syria, imposing diplomatic-security dictates, weakening its national strength, and more. Hezbollah and Hamas, extremist though they may be, have thus far evinced a clear ability to weigh advantages and disadvantages in their conduct, i.e. characteristics of a "rational player," and therefore are apparently given to deterrence. Most observers believe that Iran, too, is basically "rational" and given to deterrence.
However, the ability to employ nuclear terrorism is liable to change those patterns of action and, above all, there is the problem of nihilist elements like Al-Qaida, which has operated intensively to obtain a nuclear capability and presumably is continuing to do so today. Clearly, Israel should act on the diplomatic and intelligence level, on its own and in cooperation with the United States and other countries, to foil any possibility of the threat emerging. The main question is how it should act if it finds out that a plan to develop a nuclear terrorism capability already exists or has reached an advanced and even operational stage.
In face of these possibilities Israel must adopt a tough and unambiguous deterrence policy. It has to be clear to all that Israel will act immediately, without restraint and with all the means at its disposal, both against those directly involved and against those who are only suspected, on the principle of "shoot first, ask later."
However, while this deterrent approach could well be effective against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, it is very doubtful it would influence Al-Qaida. The accepted wisdom to the effect that this organization is not subject to deterrence is liable to be correct, but it has not yet been proven and the implications are grave. Therefore, there is no alternative but to examine whether there really does exist a threat, no matter how grave, that could serve as a basis for deterring Al-Qaida, such as the destruction of population centers and sites of symbolic and religious importance to Islam. The very thought is repugnant, but possibly only such threats have the potential to prevent an unprecedented threat to Israel.
The good news is that insofar as is known, no terrorist organization has succeeded in obtaining nuclear capability. The technological obstacles are many, the international community, under the leadership of the United States, is increasingly on the alert and apparently Israel is in no immediate danger. Therefore, we have time ahead of us to prepare and formulate a comprehensive thwarting and deterrence policy. One thing is clear: The dimensions of the threat are intolerable and necessitate pertinent preparation, the sooner the better.
The writer served as deputy national security adviser. An extensive study of this issue has been published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.