Fear Is Not a Deterrent, Bibi

In his comments these days, Netanyahu is undermining the chance of crafting a credible deterrent policy against a future nuclear Iran.

It is possible to argue about the estimates of the results and implications of a decision to attack Iran. However, it is clear that the prime minister, by his remarks on the Iranian issue, is severely undermining one of the basic tenets of the state's future strategy.

Dr. Colin Kahl, a former foreign policy adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, spoke last week about the short-term violation of Israel's deterrent capability. It's not clear why Israel is expressing itself this way, he said, because it undermines the country's deterrence. Iran does not take Israel's threats seriously now, either, Kahl said, because they always say the sky is falling.

And indeed, whoever threatens daily to attack Iran but is really shouting out, "Hold me back," will in the end be treated with a bit of skepticism. This issue will of course be solved if Israel does attack Iran and it transpires that the intention was to carry out the threats. But it is clear what will happen to Israel's deterrent power if the decision is eventually made in Jerusalem not to attack. For this reason alone it would have been worthwhile for the prime minister and defense minister to stem the flood of remarks they have made about an approaching assault.

But the damage that has been done to Israel's immediate deterrence is a drop in the ocean compared to that which has been done to its future deterrent power. After all, it is possible that despite all the pressure and sanctions, and perhaps even despite an Israeli attack, Iran will ultimately have nuclear weapons; both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have as much as acknowledged that Israel can delay the development of an Iranian bomb for only a relatively short time.

In the face of a nuclear Iran, Israel will be forced to base its policy on deterrence. Mutual deterrence between two countries that are equipped with nuclear weapons is based on the recognition by each side that its stockpile of bombs is sufficient to deter its adversary from making use of its own arsenal. The success of deterrence depends on its credibility. Only when the adversary gives his opponent's prohibitive power a large measure of credibility will he refrain from attacking. The credibility of deterrence is strengthened when the leaders of both sides publicly express their full faith in their ability to deter the other.

The trouble is that the prime minister, in his comments these days, is undermining the chance of crafting a credible deterrent policy against a future nuclear Iran. The message being broadcast by Netanyahu is that if the Iranian regime has nuclear weapons, this means the end of the State of Israel. We will not be able to live with a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu declares time and again, and in this way, by his own words, he impairs the strategic deterrence which he himself may later be forced to adopt.

Netanyahu's assertions broadcast a lack of trust in Israel's ability to deter the Iranians because according to his view, the moment they have the bomb in their hands, they will launch it at Israel. In this way, Netanyahu has abruptly sawed off the branch on which Israel's strategic deterrent policy was resting for the past few decades.

If everything that Israel has developed and acquired, according to foreign publications, does not suffice to deter a nuclear Iran in the future, then this is the most grave strategic failure in the history of the state. Instead of expressing faith in our ability to deter the Iranian ayatollahs by those strategic means, the prime minister casts doubts about Israel's deterrent prowess.