A Small Country With a Nuclear Option

Foreign sources say Israel has nuclear weapons; either way, its internal forces don’t allow for a new initiative as is happening now with North Korea

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP
Yigal Elam
Yigal Elam

At the summit meeting in Singapore, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un completed a well-thought-out move he had initiated, one that let his country and regime get off a hopeless track before it was too late. With assurances from the great powers (i.e. the United States), North Korea moved onto a track that will open political and economic horizons for this isolated and hermetic state. All signs indicate that the North Korean regime seeks to make significant changes while fully controlling the process and pace of change, most likely using the Chinese or Vietnamese model.

From the very outset, the development of nuclear weapons was intended to obtain not just deterrence against any threat or attempt at coercion by the powers, but also a bargaining chip when the time was ripe for change. To understand the logic that drives besieged states that aren’t great powers to develop nuclear weapons, one can learn something from Israel.

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Moshe Dayan presented this logic to a group of officers in October 1957, a year after the Sinai-Suez campaign. When Dayan was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, he was the person with the most impact on Israel’s defense policies. He pushed with all his might for a decisive military showdown with Egypt and strenuously objected to withdrawing from Sinai under the pressure of the United States and the Soviet Union. He shared Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s sense of deep shock over the strange collaboration between the Americans and Russians regarding pressure on Israel (as well as on Britain and France) to withdraw from Sinai.

In the meeting of officers, devoted to drawing lessons from the Sinai Campaign, Dayan talked about the risks of future compromise deals imposed by Western countries, as he discussed in his book “Story of My Life.”

Dayan said he certainly identified with the conception that sees in Israel’s strength a detonator. In other words, Israel is not just a Jewish state whose existence is morally justified, but it has the potential – if attempts are made to impose solutions that endanger its existence – to cause an eruption that would shake wider areas, which would lead to the lifting of such pressure.

As Dayan put it, this wouldn’t happen because other countries pitied the Jews and Israel; that wouldn’t be a very constructive plan. The plan was for Israel to become something of a vicious animal, able to extend a crisis beyond its borders.

Could North Korea’s nuclear weapons have let it maintain its domestic policy of repression and terror while broadcasting militancy outward – polices that condemned it to isolation and an increasing economic and political boycott? Could it have imposed on the outside world acquiescence and resignation to its regime, including the threat it held over its southern neighbor? To me the answer seems an emphatic no.

Possession of nuclear weapons has a limited role, a deterrent one, even when it comes to superpowers, and thus more so when it comes to mini-powers such as North Korea. The country’s leaders never really had the option of using these weapons other than when facing total annihilation, as in bringing the house down over their own heads as well. Possession of these weapons would never ease the siege or improve its economy or international standing.

In contrast, in an ingenious move, North Korea’s leaders found a way to extract the optimal benefits from their nuclear weapons – not by threatening to use them but through offers to dismantle them and have them banned from the entire Korean Peninsula.

Foreign sources say Israel has a respectable nuclear arsenal that it began developing after the Sinai Campaign. If this is true, and if we remember Dayan’s words, the interesting question in the context of the Singapore summit is: Would such weapons give Israel more diplomatic maneuverability in trying to solve the conflict with the Palestinians?

The sad answer is no. Nuclear weapons in Israel’s hands might have affected the moves of Arab countries that were involved in the conflict and have abandoned it, but such weapons would have no impact – certainly not a positive one – on Israeli policies in this conflict.

If Israel has any policy in this realm, it seems to be one of managing the conflict, not resolving it. It’s doubtful that this is truly a policy, because policies by nature are meant to solve problems, not maintain or manage them. The concept of “conflict management” is actually devoid of meaning or at best linked to a basic delusion. Conflicts cannot be managed. They don’t stay inert. They tend to erupt and create unexpected, uncontrollable situations.

No one in Israel, young or old, on the left or right, can truly believe that there is a future to the current state of affairs that Israel so strenuously tries to maintain. This is an unacceptable situation; a permanent occupation is intolerable, as is a state that is not a state of all its citizens. Israel still benefits from some support and justification, paradoxically provided by Hamas, as long as the group uses violence not only against the occupation but against Israel’s very existence.

Also, Israel has been fortunate to receive (so far) unstinting support from the United States under Donald Trump. But Hamas’ opposition is waning, replaced by a quest for a long-term truce, and the United States for some reason isn’t abandoning its search for a peace plan, reminding Israel recently that U.S. interests are global, not limited to our area.

Any peace plan offered to Israel will involve concessions it won’t want to make. As expected, Israel will pin its hopes on a Palestinian refusal coming first. But this is relying on a thin reed, because under pressure from moderate Arab states, the Palestinians may become more flexible at the last moment.

In any case, Israel is entrapped in a world of images and concepts held by an array of internal forces that don’t allow for a new initiative as is happening now with North Korea. Israel may have to experience increasing isolation, a growing cultural boycott and ultimately heavy economic sanctions before it gathers the strength to break the shackles it has tied itself in.

Yigal Elam is a historian of Zionism and the State of Israel.

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