Once again, after a two-year hiatus, all 18 Arab state-members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are ready to single out Israel for special condemnation. Specifically, these states have just drafted a new resolution that "expresses concern about Israel's nuclear capabilities," and correspondingly demands Israel "accede to the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], and place all of its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA purview."
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Included in this resolution, of course, is a critical corollary demand that Jerusalem move immediately toward full nuclear disclosure, and to membership in a Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone for the Middle East.
At first, this proposal may sound eminently fair and even-handed. After all, the 18 Arab member states of the IAEA would also agree to remain non-nuclear. In actuality, however, it is just another cynical way to render Israel increasingly vulnerable and altogether impotent.
Once Israel had agreed to its own de-nuclearization, it could never again stand up to any serious Arab aggressions. For the first time in its brief history, it could survive only at the pleasure of its sworn enemies. The Palestinian Authority (PA), now a UN General Assembly declared non-member observer state, and Hamas, have already managed to eliminate Israel cartographically; on several of their official maps – Middle East peace process notwithstanding, all of Israel (not just West Bank/Judea/Samaria) is carefully designated as "Occupied Palestine."
Such unhidden designations haven't elicited even a murmur of UN discussion or disapproval. Were Jerusalem to accept any proposal for a regional Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone, such agreement would lead directly to Israel's jurisprudential and physical disappearance. Without its nuclear weapons, either undisclosed (the prevailing "bomb in the basement") or more or less declared, Israel could no longer reliably stave off far-reaching and possibly irreversible military defeats. Recalling Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz's classic dictum on war - "...there comes a time when mass counts" - nuclear capacity remains Israel's ultimate and utterly indispensable force equalizer.
This military judgment is not subject to any reasonable disagreement. It is correct, prima facie, and remains undisputed by serious strategic thinkers across the world, including those from in both Arab states and non-Arab Muslim states.
From the beginning, Israel has made it plain that a meaningful Israel-Palestinian peace must precede any conceivable Israeli membership in a Nuclear-Weapon Free Zone. Not only is it apparent that no such peace is forthcoming from the Palestinian side, it is also noteworthy that even a true peace with the Palestinians could never obviate Israel's nuclear options. In other words, Israel's own stated policy on conditions for regional nuclear disarmament are already too concessionary.
Even without the usual fears of a violent Palestinian uprising and terror, the Jewish State would remain beleaguered by threats of force from virtually all of the other Arab states. Potentially, these relentless adversaries could include Egypt and Jordan, Arab states whose cold relations with Israel barely conform to a codified, formal peace at all.
International law is not a suicide pact. Now, still facing both hostile states, and fanatically adversarial terrorist groups, Israel has a fundamental right to national self-preservation. Because this "peremptory" right cannot be secured in the absence of its nuclear weapons, Jerusalem is under no legal obligation to accede to the NPT, or a so-called Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.
Israel, moreover, cannot be fairly compared to Iran. While Tehran calls openly for “wiping Israel off the map” – an express call for genocide, as defined by authoritative international law – Israel resolutely maintains its nuclear posture silently, without belligerent intent. Indeed, Jerusalem's persistently quiet reservation of nuclear military options is rooted entirely in the plausible requirements of self-defense.
With its still-undeclared nuclear posture, Israel seeks only to prevent enemy aggressions. Unlike Iran, an NPT member state that is bound to remain non-nuclear, Israel maintains its distinctly residual nuclear options only to survive as a nation. More precisely, Israel's leaders recognize the authoritative obligation to compensate for their tiny country's overwhelming and irremediable limitations, both geographic and demographic.
Israel's leaders have read Clausewitz. They know that "mass counts!"
Israel knows that it can never hope to achieve minimal national security in a uniformly conventional weapons environment. This means that even if Iran and various Arab nuclear aspirants were actually willing to honor their codified and binding commitments within a Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone, the result would still leave Israel at a singular and intolerable security disadvantage. In such denuclearized circumstances, the Jewish State would retain no compelling capacity for pre-war or intra-war deterrence, or, if necessary, for actual war-fighting.
In the end, even relatively optimistic assumptions about Iranian and/or Arab state compliance with any legally-mandated denuclearization would be missing the point. In view of Arab and Islamic military doctrines, the latter generally animated by certain non-compromising notions of jihad, and of the long historical record of Arab and Iranian noncompliance with international law in all matters that concern Israel, any Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone in the Middle East would be a contrivance. As the first obligation of any government must always be to protect its civilian populations, no responsible government of Israel should accede to the Arab world's latest NWFZ resolutions and expectations.
International law is not a suicide pact. It may be difficult to imagine any state’s nuclear weapons as inherently “good.” Still, there are circumstances in which the possession of such weapons could be all that protects a threatened mini-state like Israel (a state smaller than Lake Michigan) from catastrophic war and genocide. Because such weapons can suitably deter international aggression, their possession may also protect neighboring states, friend and foe alike, from war-related, or even nuclear-inflicted harms.
Should a Nuclear Weapon Free-Zone be implemented for the Middle East, even if all parties were to comply fully, and even if the Arab states and Iran were to resist exploiting their resultant conventional force advantage, Israel could still face an existential risk from particular nuclear states outside the affected region.
With its nuclear weapons, and a corollary nuclear strategy, Israel could conceivably deter a rational enemy’s unconventional attacks, as well as most large conventional aggressions. With such nuclear weapons, Israel could also launch certain non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state hard targets, against adversarial weapons that might threaten Israel’s catastrophic destruction.
Israel's nuclear weapons are a durable force for peace in the region. They should never be exchanged for the illusory promises of IAEA security guarantees.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of International Law at Purdue University and has authoredmany books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He was Chair of Project Daniel, a private nuclear advisory group to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.