A Nuclear Iran Is Not the Only Danger Hovering Over Israel

Iran has been occupying the Israeli military leadership in recent years, but arguably the greater threat lies on the northern border.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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A Hezbollah supporter with a poster of the Shi'ite group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, January 30, 2015.
A Hezbollah supporter with a poster of the Shi'ite group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, January 30, 2015.Credit: AP
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

Iran in possession of a nuclear weapon is an ever-present danger in our minds. Especially in light of the framework agreement signed by the United States and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany [the P5+1], which provides Iran with legitimacy for its vast nuclear infrastructure and reduces the break-out period for an Iranian nuclear weapon to a minimum.

But it is not the only great danger hovering over Israel. In addition, there are more than 100,000 rockets and missiles in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon all pointed at Israel, plus thousands of rockets in the hands of Hamas in Gaza. They put all of Israel’s civilian population at risk. Which is the greater danger?

We can get some indication of the severity of the danger facing us by attempting to calculate the expectation, or the expected value, of the physical damage that might be caused by the occurrence of either of the two events: an attack by an Iranian nuclear weapon; or an attack by Hezbollah missiles and rockets. There is no way of assigning objective probabilities to these events, but we can make some intuitive guesses.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranians would have a large-scale, negative geopolitical effect on the Middle East, but the probability that the weapon would actually be used is extremely small. However, the physical damage caused if it were to be used is essentially infinite. With the withdrawal from Sinai, Israel became a point target for a nuclear bomb. The product of the probability and damage incurred is, therefore, incalculable.

The probability of Hezbollah launching its reservoir of missiles and rockets against Israel is substantial. The theories discussed about our ability to deter them from taking such an action are not on very solid ground. Multiplying such a subjective probability by the damage that is likely to be incurred produces a result, which although indefinite, should be of grave concern to all.

Whereas the Iranian nuclear threat has been occupying our civilian and military leadership these past years – and constant efforts have been made to slow down the Iranian nuclear program – excepting civil defense programs conducted by the Israel Defense Forces Home Front, Israel’s answer to the Hezbollah rocket and missile threat has been limited to a reliance on a dubious theory of deterrence. The opportunity to destroy Hamas’ rocket capability in Gaza was missed during Operation Protective Edge last summer.

From year to year, Hezbollah’s rocket and missile threat has grown in numbers, range and accuracy. Despite the efforts that were made over the years to interfere with the supply of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran and Syria, the Shi’ite group’s capabilities to cause severe damage to Israel’s civilian population and infrastructure has continued to grow. It should be clear the hope that Israel will be able to deter Hezbollah from utilizing this capability cannot be considered an adequate strategy for Israel.

This threat to Israel’s civilian population has grown over the years. At first, years ago, short-range rockets endangered civilians in towns and villages in the north. The response was Operation Peace for the Galilee [aka the first Lebanon war, in 1982], which established a security zone in southern Lebanon that put these rockets out of range of Israel’s northern border. After that came successive IDF withdrawals and increased ranges of Hezbollah rockets and missiles, until gradually – and almost imperceptibly – all of Israel came under threat.

Successive Israeli governments “learned” to live with the threat, and deterrence became the prevailing strategy. This strategy failed during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and also against Hamas in Gaza.

The first and essential component of an effective strategy designed to protect Israel’s civilian population against the rocket and missile threat must be an IDF capability to neutralize the Hezbollah arsenal within 24, or at most 48, hours. That capability gives Israel a number of options to free itself of this threat.

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