Now that the “Iranian option” is dead, the prime minister must begin to formulate a new strategic conception. Even if he won’t admit it, Benjamin Netanyahu understands that the option of attacking Iran has faded away. As a realist, he understands that the chances that country will ultimately possess nuclear weapons have increased. Therefore, he must abandon his policy of fear-mongering and his Holocaust rhetoric, and offer the people of Israel a new vision. The prime minister must make it clear that an Iranian bomb does not spell the end of the Zionist dream, and that people do not have to rush for the exits when it turns out that Iran does possess atomic bombs. At the same time, Netanyahu must draw up new policies which Israel should adopt while facing a nuclear Iran.
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On the way there, Netanyahu should learn from the experience of the United States, which struggled with similar dilemmas in the 1960s. John F. Kennedy ran for president in the shadow of a Soviet nuclear threat. He promised his supporters that after entering the White House, he would build atomic shelters for the whole population and would accelerate the development of defense systems against nuclear missiles. But after only a few months in office, Kennedy understood that this was not the way to proceed. The United States could not sustain the costs involved in protecting its entire population, and such protection would in any case be useless in the event of a surprise attack. The development of defensive measures against Soviet nuclear missiles was abandoned by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, after he was persuaded by his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, that even the most effective systems would be futile in case of a nuclear attack. The reason: No defensive system can offer “hermetic” protection; even the small number of missiles that will penetrate it can wreak intolerable damage. The result was the formulation in America of a policy of mutual deterrence.
It seems that all the principles and considerations that guided the U.S. administration in forming its policies five decades ago are valid for the case of Israel versus Iran in the 21st century. Once it’s clear that attacking Iran is not an option, that it is not possible to contain or control the limits of any nuclear engagement, and that a nuclear exchange will turn into total war with no victors, all that remains is deterrence. And it must keep the other side from using such powerful weapons – indeed, from even thinking about using them.
A central component of the concept of mutual deterrence is the abandonment of defensive measures. This conception means adopting ways of thinking that are contrary to the natural human instinct of self-defense. That is how McNamara’s arguments were perceived: as supporting a scenario in which the United States would be exposed to certain and utter destruction, even though it possessed the technology for developing anti-missile defenses that would intercept Soviet rockets. As expected, this conception met with vehement opposition by the U.S. military brass and the heads of its defense establishment. It took a few years until people accepted the fact that McNamara was right.
We don’t have a McNamara or anyone else who will urge the prime minister and his government to formulate and develop policies that Israel should implement if efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program end in failure. This is why we are investing billions in developing defensive systems such as the Arrow, which unfortunately will become irrelevant should the threats facing us be nuclear in nature. Even the Arrow-3, effective as it may be, will not afford a hermetic seal that will protect us in the face of Iranian missiles. The cost of only one or two nuclear strikes at the center of Israel will be intolerable.
Netanyahu must accept the demise of the “Iranian option” and stop frightening us. He needs to change track.