by Louis Rene Beres


Department of Political Science

Purdue University

West Lafayette IN 47907


TEL 317 494-4189

FAX 317 494-0833


A response to "In the Shadow of the Israeli Nuclear Bombs: Egyptian Threat Perceptions," an article by Abdel Monem Said Aly in THE BROWN JOURNAL OF WORLD AFFAIRS, Summer/Fall 1996, Vol. III, Issue 2, pp. 151-162.


It is difficult to imagine nuclear weapons as anything other than inherently evil implements of destruction. Yet, there are certainly circumstances wherein a particular state's possession of such weapons is all that protects that state from catastrophic war or even from genocide. Moreover, because such terrible weapons may deter international aggression, their possession could also protect neighboring states (friends and foes) from war-related or even nuclear-inflicted harms. It follows that not all members of the Nuclear Club need be a menace; indeed, some may offer a distinct and indispensable benefit to world peace and security.

A case in point is the State of Israel. Should it ever be deprived of its (still undisclosed) nuclear forces because of foreign pressures, the Jewish State would become vulnerable to overwhelming and unspeakable attacks from certain enemy states. Although such existential vulnerability might be prevented in principle by instituting parallel forms of chemical/biological weapons disarmament among these enemy states, such parallel steps would never actually take place. After all, as we should have learned from post Gulf War efforts to identify Iraqi unconventional weapons operations, verification of compliance in thse matters is exceedingly difficult. Such verification would be especially problematic where several states would be involved. And this is to say nothing about ongoing plans for nuclearization among particular enemy states, most notably non-Arab Iran - plans that go forward clandestinely under the cover of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In his BROWN JOURNAL article, "In the Shadow of the Israeli Nuclear Bombs: Egyptian Threat Perceptions," Abdel Monem Said Aly - Director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo - presents a prevailing Arab (specifically Egyptian) view of Israel's undeclared "nuclear bombs." Acknowledging his country's persistent pressure upon Israel to sign the NPT, Professor Said Aly seemingly forgets that Israel's strategic policies are fashioned in context. These policies are not created in a geopolitical vacuum. Although, as the author argues, "Both geography and history...have defined the constants of the Egyptian perception of national security," it is remarkably ironic to conclude that it was creation of the State of Israel in 1948 that "constituted a major security threat to Egypt." Even today, when a formal condition of peace obtains between Egypt and Israel, the Egyptian side has ensured that the peace remains an altogether cold one, and one that endures in the midst of almost frenetic Egyptian militarization.

Professor Said Aly worries that Egypt is endangered from Israel because the Jewish State "continues to possess a fanatic, fundamentalist right wing...." Yet, the Netanyahu Government has refused to abrogate the enormously debilitating (to Israel) surrenders compelled by Oslo and remains committed altogether to defensive military policies. At the same time, authentically fanatic, fundamentalist Islamic forces could topple the Mubarak government at any moment, instituting a new regime in Cairo that would likely terminate the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and move - perhaps collaboratively - toward aggressive war. In this connection, it is also worth noting that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 does not necessarily constrain Egypt from joining other Arab states in a war against the Jewish State. A minute to Article VI, paragraph 5, of the Treaty provides: "It is agreed to by the Parties that there is no assertion that this Treaty prevails over other treaties or agreements or that other Treaties or agreements prevail over this Treaty."

An uninformed reader, considering Prof. Said Aly's article, would conclude that the history of Middle East conflict after 1948 was largely the result of persistent Israeli aggressions, several through the Sinai. Of course, on May 17, 1967, President Nasser demanded U.N. withdrawal from the Sinai in preparation for Egyptian attack. By May 20, approximately 100,000 Egyptian troops, organized in seven divisions, together with 1,000 tanks, were concentrated along Israel's southwestern border.

After the withdrawal of the U.N. Emergency Force demanded by Egypt, THE VOICE OF THE ARABS proclaimed: "As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the U.N. about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence." Two days later, an enthusiastic echo came from Hafez Assad, then Syria's Defense Minister: "Our forces are now entirely ready...to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland....The time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation."

With these facts in mind, Professor Said Aly claims to remain concerned about an Israeli "surprise attack," and insists that Israel's resort to anticipatory self-defense in June 1967 was merely aggression. Looking to the future of the region, he insists further that: "Militarily, Israel has secured for itself a position of superiority in both conventional and non-conventional weapons." Nothing could be further from the truth. No other country in the Middle East today is as effectively susceptible to catastrophic war as is Israel. Deprived of its nuclear weapons, as Professor Said Aly would recommend, Israel would not survive another year.

But isn't this a contradiction? If Israel retains its nuclear weapons, why should it be vulnerable to catastrophic war? The answer has to do with the delicate nature of nuclear deterrence, with the incapacity of nuclear weapons to stave off most forms of conventional war and with the destructive synergy that might come to exist between war and terrorism. Israeli does indeed have nuclear superiority in the region - a superiority that is likely to obtain for a very long time - but this condition does not necessarily imply superior power. Recall, in this connection, the incapacity of another major nuclear power - the United States of America -to achieve power against a third world adversary then called North Vietnam.

Reduced to its essential contours, Israel's existential problem is this: A tiny state, indeed a microstate, surrounded by much larger, steadily militarizing enemy states and by increasingly hostile insurgent forces, seeks safety via credible deterrence, Yet, because deterrence can be immobilized by various factors - for example, by enemy perceptions of an Israeli unwillingness or incapacity to retaliate; by irrationality of enemy leadership - Jerusalem must once again plan for various forms of preemption. But defensive first-strikes by Israel would be fraught with strategic and diplomatic risks, and may in fact already be infeasible. Naturally, if any realistic hopes could be placed in the so-called "Peace Process," the bleakness of Israel's security options would certainly be improved. But no such hopes are reasonable. Rather, the Oslo Accords with the P.L.O. remain entirely injurious to Israel's survival requirements.

What about active defenses, e.g., the Arrow ABM to which Prof. Said Aly refers? If Israel could soon deploy effective defensive systems, couldn't Jerusalem forego any preemption imperatives? After all, able to intercept incoming missiles, Israel would have no tactical reason to strike first.

Here, a number of critical problems surface. First, in the very best of all possible worlds, Israel's ABM deployments are at least four to five years away. Hence, in the interim, Israeli vulnerability to enemy attack will be especially high. Second, because even a single unintercepted nuclear or other unconventional warhead could produce unacceptable damage, successful active defense will require a near-perfect interception capability - a capability well beyond realization.

Professor Said Aly, in the fashion of most scholars - Arab and Israeli - examines Israel's nuclear strategy and the Oslo Peace Process as if they were essentially unrelated. There is nothing in Prof. Said Aly's argument to suggest that what happens to Israel as a result of Oslo concessions will impact its decisions on nuclear strategy and nuclear weapons. Yet, depending upon the precise configuration of these ongoing concessions - which will in any event be a more-or-less truncated Jewish State with greatly reduced strategic depth - Jerusalem's reliance upon nuclear weapons and strategy will vary considerably.

How would Professor Said Aly suggest that Israel compensate for its loss of strategic depth? Should this loss result in a Palestinian state, which now seems certain, the geostrategic victory of Israel's enemies would be augmented by something intangible but still critical: the probable Arab and Iranian perception of an ongoing momentum against the Jewish State. Recognizing such a perception, Israel could decide to take its bomb out of the "basement" as a deterrence-enhancing measure, and/or it could accept a greater willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets.

For their part, certain Arab states and/or Iran would respond to such decisions. Made aware of Israeli policy shifts - shifts that would stem from both Israel's territorial vulnerabilities and from Israel's awareness of enemy perceptions spawned by the creation of a Palestinian state - these enemy states could respond in more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly for nuclearization and for first-strike attacks. Hence, the results of the Oslo Process, a so-called Peace Process, would almost surely increase Israel's dependence upon nuclear weapons and strategy.

There are important connections between territorial vulnerabilities, creation of a Palestinian state and removal of the nuclear bomb from Israel's "basement." For now, still buffered from a "hot" eastern border by West Bank/Judea/Samaria, Israel can reasonably afford to maintain its posture of deliberate ambiguity. If, however, the Peace Process should lead to "Palestine," Israel would likely feel compelled to move from ambiguity to disclosure, a shift that would substantially increase reliance upon nuclear strategies of various sorts.

Israeli nuclear weapons are not the problem. In the persistently bad neighborhood called the Middle East, the real problem is a very far-reaching and entirely unreconstructed Arab/Iranian commitment to "excise the Jewish cancer." Faced with this commitment, the government in Jerusalem should understand that the Peace Process is little more than a temporary enemy expedient, a carefully contrived strategem to eliminate Israel from the neighborhood.

Israeli nuclear weapons are crucial to Israel's survival and to regional stability. With such weapons, Israel could deter enemy unconventional attacks and most large conventional ones. Moreover, with nuclear weapons, Jerusalem could launch non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy state military targets that threaten Israel's annihilation. Without these weapons, such strikes would likely represent the onset of a much wider war because there would be no compelling threat of Israeli counterretaliation. Thus, Israel's nuclear weapons are an impediment to the actual use of such weapons and, inter alia, to the commencement of regional nuclear war.

Professor Said Aly, of course, does not agree. He argues, for example, that because of Israel's nuclear capability, "Egypt must be totally dependent on Israel's good intentions." But why? Do these Israeli weapons permit Jerusalem to demand certain political and/or military concessions from Cairo? Certainly not. The Israeli nuclear weapons can serve to prevent transformation of Egypt's cold peace into another Egypt-led hot war, but they can assuredly not be used to extort any forms of Egyptian surrender. Does Professor Said Aly expect either an Israeli "bolt-from-the-blue" nuclear attack or an Israeli threat to initiate nuclear warfare? How could he? What would Israel have to gain?

Professor Said Aly is concerned about "a clear imbalance in nuclear power relations." Fearing that Israel's "nuclear monopoly" precludes genuine nuclear deterrence in the region, he chooses to ignore altogether Egyptian and other Arab chemical and biological weapons - counterdeterrent weapons that could pose a very effective inhibitor of any Israeli nuclear retaliations. This means that Israel's nuclear monopoly notwithstanding (a monopoly that is, incidentally, a very temporary phenomenon), Jerusalem's nuclear deterrent is increasingly subject to immobilization by enemy state threats of chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations.

Professor Said Aly is worried that Israel's nuclear arsenal prompts regional nuclear proliferation. This is an especially curious argument because it places blame for the expected spread of nuclear weapons not upon the actual proliferants, but upon their intended victim. Moreover, while the author is correct that "nuclear proliferation in the Middle East can be very destabilizing for the entire region," the source of that prospective destabilization is not Israel, a country - unlike certain of its neighbors - that has never issued genocidal threats or launched missile attacks upon civilian populations.

Professor Said Aly remarks on the alleged "discrepancy between Israel's maximum needs and its actual nuclear capabilities," concluding that this discrepancy "raises serious doubts about the credibility of Israeli intentions." His point, it would seem, is that Israel's nuclear weapons are presumptively for more than minimum deterrence and may even be for aggression and/or war-waging. Here, Professor Said Aly ignores many pertinent nuances of nuclear strategy, especially the precise kinds of nuclear weapons involved (not all such weapons are the same), the question of countervalue vs. counterforce targeting, and the requirements of national survival if nuclear deterrence should fail.

Professor Said Aly wonders about Israel's development of tactical nuclear weapons, and perhaps nuclear mines. In this regard, he worries that the decision to use such weapons might be made more easily than a decision to use larger, strategic weapons. Indeed, his worry is entirely well-founded. Israeli nuclear deterrence, to function successfully, requires nuclear weapons that are perceptibly usable. This does not mean weapons that would increase the risk of war; on the contrary, it means weapons that would be decidedly stabilizing.

Professor Said Aly claims that Israel has actually deployed some of its nuclear weapons in times of grave national emergency. Although I have no way of knowing whether this claim is plausible (neither, of course, does Professor Said Aly), the author's fear - that "under conditions of crisis, when the use or the threat of chemical weapons or conventional missiles in massive quantities is real, Israel might use its nuclear weapons" - is certainly correct. If Israel's Arab neighbors do not want to witness such a defensive Israeli use of nuclear weapons, all they need do is refrain from chemical or massive conventional aggressions against the Jewish State.

Professor Said Aly laments that "Israeli nuclear capability is one of the ways for Israel to extract further means of conventional superiority (emphasis in original) from the United States...." Yet, should Israel actually be able to achieve or maintain such conventional superiority, Jerusalem's reliance upon nuclear weapons could be expected to diminish. Hence, the author's concern here is contrary to his previous concerns.

Professor Said Aly comments upon the ambiguities surrounding Israeli command authority over nuclear weapons, conditions which he fears, "in times of tension, uncertainty or national crisis," would exacerbate the prospect of "accidental use." Here we observe a rather clear non sequitur, as there exists no observable relationship between clarity of authority structure and nuclear weapons accident probability. Perhaps the author really means unauthorized use rather than accidental use, but even this kind of hypothesis would be prima facie incorrect. Knowing in advance exactly who has the authority to order the use of Israeli nuclear weapons could serve to identify unauthorized uses after the fact (who would care?) but it would have no bearing on the possible prevention of unauthorized uses by neighboring states. Further, does Professor Said Aly really expect us to believe that any Arab nuclear power in the region would disclose its relevant authority structures?

Finally, Professor Said Aly faults Israel for "still refusing to give Palestinians their statehood" and for its ostensible insistence "on occupying Arab territories, including Jerusalem...." Ironically, it has been successive Israeli governments that have accorded legitimacy to the idea of Judea and Samaria as "occupied Arab territories" and that have allowed the preposterous notion of Jerusalem as a negotiable issue to be placed on the diplomatic table. Instead of insisting upon maintenance of essential strategic depth and upon the utter non-negotiability of Jerusalem - insistence necessary for national survival - Israeli governments have persistently surrendered to annihilatory Arab demands.

Israel has a great deal to fear. Facing a growing number of adversaries with ballistic missiles and with aggressive nuclear development programs, Jerusalem should now understand that transformation of Judea/Samaria into Palestine would not stabilize the region, but rather would provide Israel's enemies with the means and incentives to destroy the Jewish State once and for all. Deprived of territorial margins of safety, Israel could become seriously vulnerable to total defeat. It follows that however loudly Arab scholars and leaders might protest about Israeli "stalling" on the territories, the matter of Palestinian statehood could have existential consequences for Israel. Once such statehood were accepted, Palestine, looking first very much like Lebanon, could wind up as Armageddon, a metamorphosis that would favor neither Israeli nor Arab in an always explosive region. The shadow falling over the Middle East, therefore, is cast not by Israeli nuclear bombs, but by regional demands that Israel agree to its own dismemberment and disappearance.