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U.S. Foreign Policy Threats to Israel’s National Security: Strategic Imperatives for Jerusalem

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Though U.S. President Donald Trump describes himself as pro-Israel, any seriously analytic assessment of his foreign policies would point toward a different conclusion. On the surface, of course, Mr. Trump’s earlier transfer of America’s embassy to Jerusalem, his recent acceptance of Israel’s established West Bank settlements and his undiminished rhetorical support of Israel’s overall security posture suggest a sympathetic U.S. administration. Still, however unwitting or unintentional, the actual expected consequences of Trump foreign policies are sorely injurious for Israel, not gainful.

As for the tangible dangers posed by these policies, they could be sudden and immediate or incremental and long-term.

For doubters, core examples are readily available. These include the American president’s strengthening of certain leading Sunni Arab military forces (as a presumptive counter-vailing power to Shiite Iran) and his declared U.S. departure from Syria. Already, this staged withdrawal is emboldening Hezbollah.

At this particular stage, for Israel, the well-organized Shiite militia supervised from Tehran poses a greater overall strategic threat than any traditional Arab army. In specific reference to a commonly perceived threat from Iran, Saudi and Egyptian military objectives are now more closely aligned with Israeli security goals than once might have even been thought possible. Still, in predictably short order, those Sunni Arab states joined together in a common Trump-led struggle against Shiite Iran could falter in their apparent allegiance. Any such substantial weakening could be triggered by altogether reasonable fears that a US-generated war with Iran would produce irrecoverable harms.

 One unintended corollary of any such Sunni-Arab weakening could be a more militarily capable and worrisome regime in Teheran and Moscow.

All things considered, and however one might choose to analyze Israel’s dynamic geopolitical challenges[1] – a task that must inevitably prove both multi-layered and expansively complex[2] – Donald Trump’s foreign policies will remain determinably “net-negative” for the country’s national security.[3] Upon considered reflection, the American president’s conspicuous policy declarations concerning Israel’s “eternal capital,” its West Bank settlements and its enduring access to conventional arms transfers will provide few if any strategic benefits to Israel. Moreover, from an international law perspective, these declarations will prove essentially irrelevant.[4]

In Israel, it is time to inquire: what is the bottom line? The correct response? It is that the Trump presidency, even if well-intentioned toward the Jewish State, lacks sufficient intellectual resources. Longer-term, this seat-of-the-pants or “doctrine-free” American administration is likely to become as darkly injurious for Israel as it has already become for the United States. This U.S. presidency, after all, believes more in “attitude, than preparation;” in virtually all matters of substance, it remains determinedly anti-historical and anti-intellectual. Also, this presidency is glaringly unconcerned about peremptory human rights, as evidenced, inter alia, by Trump’s flagrantly open abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.

For Israel, the salient message here should be clear. This abandonment should stand as an unambiguous warning against placing too much faith in American security pledges or commitments, especially during the persistently dissembling “Trump Era.”

There is more. From the start, North Korean nuclear negotiations have been mismanaged by Trump; correspondingly, Pyongyang continues to expand and modernize its advanced nuclear weapons missile programs.[5] While the American president has repeatedly drawn false comfort from “falling in love” with Kim Jung Un (a demonstrably unrequited love), the North Korean dictator makes any once-credible hopes for “complete denuclearization” unassailably nonsensical.

Similarly, Mr. Trump’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA pact concerning Iran has accelerated that adversarial state’s worrisome nuclearization. Ominously, too, fearful strategic nuclear/hypervelocity missile developments are expanding in Russia, a superpower foe which sees in this unreflective American president an optimally convenient surrogate for achieving Moscow’s national military goals.

The principal reason for identifying the unreliability/unpredictability of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy for Israeli security is intellectual. Persistently, wittingly, Donald Trump has revealed a near-total lack of historic or strategic understanding, and a derivative disregard for all constitutive elements of civilized international relations.[6] In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the following  critical question ought soon be posed:

Should those officials responsible for meeting Israel’s security obligations place their existential bets on such evidently fragile analytic foundations?

It’s not a complicated question.

The comprehensive security dilemma for Israel posed by U.S. President Trump is augmented by various similarly serious jurisprudential deficits. These legal shortcomings include an apparent unconcern for certain “peremptory” obligations of national and international law.[7]  Without suitable embarrassment, this president has argued that he maintains a personal right to override US Constitutional expectations concerning birthright and US citizenship, and that the US had properly terminated its codified obligations under the INF Treaty with Russia.

Regarding the specific matter of this president’s INF Treaty termination, which was not ipso facto illegal, the deleterious security outcome could still prove multi-faceted and broadlyoverwhelming.

More concretely, this more-or-less negative outcome could be made manifest in certain measurable or indecipherable increments, or rather in sudden “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attacks. Often, because the foreign and defense policies of nation-states are not only intersecting, but “synergistic” (situations wherein the “whole” would be greater than the aggregate sum of its “parts”), these attacks would not necessarily stem directly from Russia.[8] Instead, they could represent a derivative but by no means insignificant nuclear involvement of North Korea.

One conceivably plausible outcome of various Trump-induced misunderstandings will be a continuously-expanding nuclear arms race between the superpowers.[9]  For Israel in particular, any such corrosive expansion could spawn serious “spillover” risks for itself and for the wider Middle East.[10] Taken together, these mutually-reinforcing risks would concern incessant destabilization, terror and war, and could present in many possible configurations and/or synergistic interactions.[11]

 President Donald Trump’s earlier “seat-of-the-pants” withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA pleased his political “base” at home, but it also enlarged the overall Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.[12]  Looking back, even if the JCPOA had been a manifestly imperfect agreement – a reasonable judgment – it did not necessarily follow that unilateral abrogation would be in America’s or Israel’s best interest. Once again, the major problem here with Donald Trump’s strategic assessment was that it was wholly devoid of any logical or persuasively analytic underpinnings.

It derived from “attitude, not preparation.”

There is more. For Israel, there is a relevant early history. Then, openly, presidential candidate Donald Trump had advised “killing the families” of terrorists and being less openly concerned about humanitarian international law –  that is, about the civilizing rules of engagement found collectively at the Law of War or the Law of Armed Conflict.[13] In essence, inter alia, heeding this president’s lawless counsel on such a salient matter would have amounted to a US reversal of incontrovertible Nuremberg Principles.[14]

Such a law-violating reversal would carry unforeseeable but still fearful consequences involving nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

All things considered, Israel now faces a unique and markedly complex dilemma. Whatever the logical underpinnings and determined coherence of its own unilateral foreign policies, President Donald Trump’s continuing missteps with Syria,[15] Iran, Russia, China, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and certain still-compliant European allies will further destabilize the Middle East – directly or indirectly; and suddenly or incrementally. Whatever Jerusalem should decide to do or not to do about the “big picture” – a security vision that must include the tangible emergence of “Cold War II”[16] – this unsteady region could slip irretrievably into ever-deeper levels of authentic “chaos.”[17]

The most presently meaningful question for Jerusalem should concern whether this slippage is apt to be the immediate result of some Trump-generated catastrophe, or whether it will manifest itself instead in certain calculable and episodic bouts of Trump policy-induced suffering.

With this query in mind, one critical issue must concern imperative re-evaluations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[18]

To date, the “bomb-in-the-basement” policy has made eminently good sense for Israel.  Presumptively, both friends and foes already recognize that Israel possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating any determined enemy’s active defenses. For these adversaries not to acknowledge these capabilities would require a very hard-to-explain and implausibly generalized intellectual deficit.

Going forward, what should Israel do about its vital nuclear posture? How, exactly, should this traditionally ambiguous stance be adapted to the convergent and inter-penetrating threats of potentially still-impending Middle Eastern/North African revolutions, a nuclear Iran,[19] and Israel’s justifiably constant concern about negotiating useful agreements with various state[20] and sub-state (terrorist) organizations.[21]

The conventional wisdom routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel’s nuclear bomb from the “basement” would only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and would do this without returning any commensurate benefits.

History, however, reveals that the conventional wisdom is often unwise. The pertinent strategic issues for Israel are not at all simple or straightforward.  Instead, in the inherently arcane world of Israel’s nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states merely acknowledge the Jewish State’s nuclear status. Instead, it is important that these states further believe that Israel holds usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would be willing to employ such weapons in certain definably clear circumstances.[22]

Still to be generated Trump instabilities in the Middle East could create more good reasons to doubt that Israel would benefit from any uninterrupted continuance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Israel’s intersecting defense and intelligence communities, that the country’s senior leadership already understands such informed skepticism. To best augment such an understanding, however, Israel’s nuclear strategists should proceed interrogatively – in effect, creating a continuously self-refining “strategic dialectic” from which suitable answers and policies could be incrementally extracted and/or systematically deduced.[23]

This will call for refined “preparation,” not “attitude.”

One basic point now warrants reiteration.  Israel is imperiled by existential threats that fully justify its nuclear weapons and that require a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. This basic need exists beyond any reasonable doubt. After all, without such weapons and doctrine, Israel could not expectedly survive over time, especially if certain neighboring regimes should sometime become still more adversarial, more jihadist and/or less risk-averse.  

Israeli nuclear weapons and purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove vital to those more-or-less predictable scenarios requiring preemptive action or suitable forms of retaliation.

Generically, military doctrine describes how a country’s national forces would fight in various recognizable combat operations. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Though generally unanticipated, the full importance of doctrine lies not only in ways that it can animate and unify military forces, but also in the particular fashion that it can transmit certain desired “messages.” In other words, doctrine can serve a state (especially an endemically beleaguered state such as Israel) as a critical form of communication, and to its friends and foes alike.

Israel could benefit from any such broadened understandings of doctrine. The principal risks facing Israel are now more specific than broadly general or benignly generic. This is because Israel’s extant adversaries in the region could at some point be joined by: (1) a new Arab state of “Palestine;”[24] and by (2) a newly-nuclear Iran.  In the presumptively worst case,  any such inauspicious “joining” would take place at the same time.[25]

For Israel, merely possessingnuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by pertinent enemy states, could never by itself ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, though starkly counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the overall credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.  With this key point prominently in mind, the injurious potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be reduced by making selectively available certain additional information.

This additional information would concern the security of Israel’s nuclear weapon response capabilities.

Carefully limited yet helpfully more explicit, it would center on distinctly major and inter-penetrating issues of Israel’s nuclear capability andits decisional willingness.

 Skeptics, no doubt, will disagree. It is, after all, seemingly sensible to assert that nuclear ambiguity has “worked” thus far. Arguably, while Israel’s current nuclear policyhas done little to deter multiple conventional terrorist attacks, it has plainly succeeded in keeping that country’s enemies, whether singly or in collaboration, from mounting any existential aggressions.

Inevitably, as the nineteenth-century Prussian strategic theorist, Karl von Clausewitz, observed in his classic essay, On War, there can come a military tipping point when “mass counts.” Israel, of course, is very small.  Its enemies have always had an undeniable and irreversible advantage in “mass.”   Perhaps even more than any other imperiled state on earth, Israel needs to steer clear of any such tipping point.[26]

For the several reasons already mentioned, this imperative is more compelling in the Trump years than before, even if the American president is more expressly “pro-Israel” in his rhetoric and policy formulations than his predecessor.

 An integral part of Israel’s multi-layered security system lies in effective ballistic missile defenses, primarily, the Arrow or “Hetz.” Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, augmented by the newer, shorter-range and systematically-integrated operations of “Iron Dome,” “David’s Sling,” and various related active defenses, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. No system of missile defense can ever be entirely “leak proof,” and even a single incoming nuclear missile that manages to penetrate Arrow or its corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Potentially, this fearful reality could prove less consequential if Israel’s continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were suitably revised or altered.

 In essence, current Israeli policy of maintaining an undeclared nuclear capacity is unlikely to work indefinitely. Leaving aside a jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan,[27] the most obviously unacceptable “leakage” threat would come in the future from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, any newly-nuclear Iran would then need certain convincing assurances that Israel’s atomic weapons were both invulnerable and penetration-capable.

Any Iranian judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would then depend largely upon some prior Iranian knowledge of these weapons, including their perceived degree of protection from surprise attack and their presumed capacity to “punch-through” certain relevant Iranian defenses, both active and passive.

A nuclear weapons-capable Iran may already be a fait accompli. For whatever reasons, neither the “international community” in general nor Israel in particular has managed to create sufficient credibility to undertake timely preemptive action. Plausibly, any such critical defensive action would have required various complex operational capabilities, and could have generated manifestly unacceptable Iranian counter actions.

It is likely that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps in cyber-defense and cyber-war, but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction would not be enough to stop Iran altogether. The sanctions sequentially leveled at Tehran over the years have had an economic impact, but  they have also had no determinable impact in halting Iranian nuclearization altogether or stopping Tehran’s discernible enhancements of intercontinental ballistic missile potential.

In time, a nuclear Iran could decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah or with another kindred terrorist group.To prevent this destabilizing sharing, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran, inter alia, that Israel possesses a useful range of distinctly usable nuclear options.  Accordingly, Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be loosened by releasing certain very general information regarding the availability and survivability of appropriately low-yield weapons.

Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a prospectively nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions.[28] Naturally, Israel should never reveal any very specific information about its nuclear strategy, hardening or yield-related capabilities.

One more point. An Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would not help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. It is possible, at least, that certain elements of Iranian leadership might sometime subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse. By definition, such an enemy would not value its own continued national survival more highly than every other preference or combination of preferences.           

Were its leaders to be or turn non-rational, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm.  Such a challenging prospect is certainly improbable, perhaps even at the very outer fringes of plausibility. But it is also not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect obtains in already-nuclear and residually coup-vulnerable Pakistan.  

To protect itself against military strikes from irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.[29]

Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind a so-called Samson Option, which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.[30]

 Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, and not war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon some implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions.  Israel’s small size means, among other things, that any nuclear attack would threaten Israel’s existence and could never be tolerated.

A Samson Option would make sense only in certain “last-resort” or “near last-resort” circumstances. If the Samson Option is to become part of a genuinely credible national deterrent, an end to Israel’s deliberate ambiguity posture would be essential. The really tough part of this transformational process would be determining the proper timing for any such action vis-à-vis Israel’s core security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the so-called “international community.”[31]

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective: Always seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of military conflict.

There is more. In our often counter-intuitive strategic world, it could sometimes become rational to pretend irrationality. The nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon a designated enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s intention to apply counter-value targeting when responding to nuclear attack.

But Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too-great a level of any specific strategic information. Also worrisome, of course, is that the American president could be perceived as authentically irrational,[32] thereby prodding “anticipatory preemptions”[33] against the US directly, or (depending upon particulars) certain close U.S. allies.  Israel represents a prospectively obvious case in point.[34]

None of this is meant to suggest that an Israeli movement away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity would be prospectively helpful only on matters involving specifically nuclear threats. Plausibly, of course, the credibility and cost-effectiveness of any Israeli nuclear retaliatory threat would be greatest where the expected aggression were similarly nuclear. Still, there are recognizable circumstances in which a determined enemy or coalition of enemies might contemplate launching “only” a devastating conventional first-strike against Israel, and conclude that such an offensive move would be sensible because it would not expectedly elicit an Israeli nuclear retaliation.

In such altogether conceivable circumstances,[35] the enemy state or coalition of enemy states would have concluded that any non-nuclear first strike against a nuclear Israel, however massive, would be perfectly rational. This is because the Jewish State’s anticipated retaliation would presumably stop short of being nuclear.

If, however, the expected aggressor(s) had previously been made aware that Israel was in possession of a wide-array of capable and secure nuclear retaliatory forces, both ion terms of their range and yield, these enemies would more likely be successfully deterred. Here, as a distinctly welcome consequence of various incremental and previously nuanced disclosures, Jerusalem will have signaled its pertinent adversaries that it can and will cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold in order to punish any potentially existential national harms.

In more narrowly military parlance, Israel’s actions here would be designed to better ensure “escalation dominance.” In this scenario, moreover, the relevant nuclear deterrence advantages to Israel of taking certain movements away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” would lie in the uniquely compelling signal that it sends. This “signal” is that Israel will not necessarily need to retaliate with massive and conspicuously disproportionate nuclear force.

It will have available certain other more readily believable retaliatory options.

Such tangible advantages could also extend beyond the enhancement of credible threats of Israeli nuclear retaliation to supporting credible threats of Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should initiate a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran before that state becomes nuclear capable (not an “aggression,”[36]  but an act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law[37]), the likelihood of any massive Iranian conventional retaliation could best be diminished if there were certain more openly disclosed and prior Israeli threats of aptly measured nuclear counter retaliations. In essence, and in illuminating historical terms, by following an incremental path away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” Israel would less likely replicate America’s much earlier nuclear posture vis-à-vis the then Soviet Union, that is a posture of threatening “massive retaliation.”[38]

 In the final analysis, there are various specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of any purposefully selective and incremental end to deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The optimal time to begin such an “end” may not yet have come. But at the moment that Iran or any other obvious foe would have verifiably crossed the nuclear threshold, that critical time will have arrived.  Moreover, should that critical moment come, Israel should already have configured (1) its optimal allocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the precise extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed.

 Significantly, such preparation could meaningfully enhance the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture.

A fully-recognizablesecond-strike nuclear force should then be revealed. Of necessity, such a robust strategic force – hardened, multiplied, and dispersed – would be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran or another prospective nuclear adversary, so long as it is led by presumptively rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.

To more comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel still has no logical alternative to developing an always- problematic conventional preemptionoption.[39] Operationally, especially at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of any success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, however, it is also noteworthy that “irrational” is not nearly the same as “crazy” or “mad.”[40] An irrational enemy leadership could successfully maintain national preference orderings or hierarchies that are both consistent and transitive.

Even an irrational leadership could sometime be subject to threats of deterrence that credibly threaten certain deeply held religious as well as public values. The principal difficulty, for Israel, is to routinely ascertain the precise nature of these core enemy values. Should it sometime be determined that an Iranian leadership were genuinely “crazy” or “mad,” that is, without any decipherable or predictable ordering of preferences, all usual deterrence “bets” could necessarily give way to preemption.     

By definition, such vital determinations would be strategic, rather than jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, and perhaps in view of Iran’s occasionally genocidal threats against Israel, a preemption option could still represent a fully permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense.[41] Again, this purely legal judgment would be separate from any parallel or coincident assessments of operational success. For now, at least, these assessments all point overwhelmingly to the avoidance of any still-residual preemption option.[42]

Whether or not a prompt or incremental shift from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to express nuclear disclosure is indicated will depend upon several very complex and interdependent factors. These factors include the specific types of nuclear weapon involved; the presumed reciprocal calculations of designated enemy leaders (state and sub-state); the expected effects on rational decision-making processes by these enemy leaders; and the expected effects on both Israeli and adversarial command/control;/communication processes. Correspondingly, if bringing Israel’s bomb out of the “basement” were ever expected to produce selected enemy pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority and/or new and seemingly less stable launch-on-warning procedures, the likelihood of certain unauthorized or accidental nuclear wars could be increased.

In many ways, growing instability in the Middle East is the plausible outcome of  US President Donald Trump’s disjointed foreign policies.[43] Such instability, in turn, could heighten the potential for assorted expansive and prospectively unconventional wars. Israel, it follows, must continue to prepare capably to upgrade its strategic posture, especially its national military nuclear strategy and its corollary longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

 Otherwise, recalling the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, Israel and America could sometime have to bear witness to abundantly measureless lamentations; that is, to the irremediably grievous observation that because of once-avoidable US White House derelictions, “…. the center cannot hold.”


[1] See, for example, latest INSS Strategic Survey (Israel): https://www.inss.org.il/publication/conclusion-strategic-assessment-policy-recommendations/

[2] “Whenever the new Muses present themselves,” says Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, “the masses bristle.” See Ortega’s The Dehumanization of Art (1925) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 7.

[3] A 2016 monograph published in Israel examines Israel-American strategic relations from the opposite direction; that is, it considers the impact of Israel’s nuclear strategy on US national security. See Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security, Tel-Aviv University, Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, December 2016:  https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf 

[4] In all such scholarly examinations of any nation-state’s security policy, operational issues must be carefully distinguished from jurisprudential ones. Accordingly, Trump US foreign policy decisions could prove harmful to certain Israeli military operations, but helpful to that country’s legal position in one setting or another, or vice-versa.

[5] Earlier, North Korea had assisted Syria in constructing a nuclear reactor, the same facility that was destroyed by Israel in it Operation Orchard on September 6, 2007. Although operationally unlike Israel’s earlier (June 7, 1981) Operation Opera, this second preemptive attack in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria was also an expression of the so-called “Begin Doctrine.”

[6] Even in the midst of an historic or “Westphalian” anarchy in international relations, there obtains a dominant jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This fundamental expectation is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[7] Under international law, the idea of a Higher Law – drawn originally from the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews – is contained, inter alia, within the principle of jus cogens or peremptory norms. In the language of pertinent Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969: “A peremptory norm of general international law….is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted, and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” Also worth pointing out here is that international law is always an integral part of US law, an incorporation that can be found both in the US Constitution (especially at Article 6, “The Supremacy Clause”) and at various US Supreme Court decisions, most famously at The Pacquete Habana (1900).

[8] Still, the US force withdrawal from Syria will plausibly exacerbate risks of a direct Israel-Russia confrontation. See, on this scenario:  https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Avoiding-an-Israeli-Russian-conflict-in-Syria-after-US-withdrawal-577015  More generally, this withdrawal will enhance Russian power and influence in the Middle East, a deleterious consequence for Israel that may or may not accurately reflect Trump’s intentions. Though it would first appear prima facie absurd that an American president would actually seek to expand rather than curtail Russian military power, such an expectation would be fully consistent with several other unexpected policy positions taken by Trump vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin.

[9] See Louis René Beres, “Nuclear Treaty Abrogation Imperils Global Security,” Yale Global Online November 1, 2018   https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/nuclear-treaty-abrogation-imperils-global-security

[10] Risks threatening Israel’s security may form an intricately interconnected network. Purposeful assessments of such risk must always include a patient search for possible synergies and for potential cascades of failures that would represent an especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties within this genre that will warrant careful assessment include contagion potential and persistence.

[11] The worst case scenario here brings to mind utterly core queries of the ancient Greek tragedian: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?” (1 The Complete Aeschylus: The Oresteia 146, Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, eds., 2nd ed., 2011).

[12] Regarding earlier strategic assessments of prospective nuclear threats from Iran, see Louis René Beres and John T. Chain (General/USAF/ret.), “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran”? The Atlantic, August, 2012; and also: Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[13] In large measure, the law of armed conflict is concerned with the principle of proportionality, which has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, or the law of exact retaliation. Specifically, the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” posture can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah or Biblical Pentateuch.

[14] These Principles – like the Nuremberg trial judgment itself – are based fundamentally upon natural law. In turn, the very idea of natural law is based upon the acceptance of certain principles of right and justice that prevail solely because of their own intrinsic merit.  Eternal and immutable, they are external to all acts of human will and interpenetrate all human reason.  This idea and its attendant tradition of human civility runs continuously from Mosaic Law and the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day.  For a comprehensive and far-reaching assessment of the natural law origins of international law by this writer, see Louis René Beres, “Justice and Realpolitik:  International Law and the Prevention of Genocide,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 33, 1988, pp. 123-159.  (This article was adapted from Professor Beres’ earlier presentation at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, Tel-Aviv, Israel, June 1982.)

[15] For Israel, Mr. Trump’s disjointed plan to pull US forces from Syria can only be disadvantageous. See, earlier, https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Avoiding-an-Israeli-Russian-conflict-in-Syria-after-US-withdrawal-577015

[16] Hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[17] See this writer’s latest book, Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[18] In regard to the core underlying issue –  Israel’s right to develop and deploy nuclear weapons – the following point is worth emphasizing: No state is under any per se legal obligation to renounce its own access to nuclear weapons; under certain markedly residual circumstances, moreover, even an actual resort to such weapons could conceivably be lawful. On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice handed down its Advisory Opinion on “The Legality of the threat or Use of Force of Nuclear Weapons.” The closing paragraph of this Opinion concludes, inter alia: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”

[19] On these core points, see: Israel’s Strategic Future: Project Daniel, The Project Daniel Group (Louis René Beres, Chair), Ariel Center for Policy Research, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, Israel, May, 2004. This special report was delivered by hand to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on January 16, 2003 by Ambassador Zalman Shoval. The Group’s six members were: Professor Louis René Beres (Chair); Naaman Belkind, former Assistant to the Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense for Special Means; Major-General /Professor Isaac Ben-Israel (IDF/ret.); Dr. Rand Fishbein; Dr. Adir Pridor, Lt. Colonel (ret.), Israel Air Force, and Head of Military Analyses, RAFAEL, Israel; and Colonel (ret.), Israel Air Force and Member of Knesset, Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto.

[20] The agreements that put an end to the first Arab-Israeli War (1947-1949) were general armistice agreements negotiated bilaterally between Israel and Egypt on February 24, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 251-70, 1949); Israel and Lebanon on March 23, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 287-98. 1949); Israel and Jordan on April 3, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 303-20, 1949); and between Israel and Syria on July 20, 1949 (42 U.N.T.S. 327-40, 1949). 

[21] Regarding the antecedent legal obligations of certain sub-state or insurgent surrogates, Israel must remain wary about signing pacts resembling the Oslo Agreements, inter alia, because such agreements can impose unequal obligations. In this connection, several U.S. federal court decisions affirm that legal agreements between sub-state and state parties may even impose asymmetrical compliance expectations. More precisely, in the case of Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, a 1981 civil suit in U.S. federal court wherein the plaintiffs were Israeli survivors and representatives of persons murdered in a terrorist bus attack in Israel in 1978, Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards opined: “…I do not believe the law of nations imposes the same responsibility or liability on non-state actors, such as the PLO, as it does on states and persons acting under color of state law.”

[22] There are two recorded incidents in which an explicit reference was made to Israel’s “bomb” by a prime minister, but neither of these events went beyond a purely vague and general commentary. On December 22, 1995, then Prime Minister Shimon Peres had declared to the Israeli press that Israel would be willing “to give up the atom” in exchange for peace. Years later, on December 11, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert uttered a very similar remark.

[23] The base term, “dialectic,” originates from the Greek expression for the art of conversation. A common contemporary meaning is method of seeking truth by correct reasoning. From the standpoint of shaping Israel’s nuclear strategy, the following representative operations could be regarded as essential but nonexclusive components: (1)a method of refutation conducted by examining logical consequences; (2) a method of division or repeated logical analysis of genera into species; (3) logical reasoning using premises that are probable or generally accepted; (4) formal logic; and (5) the logical development of thought through thesis and antithesis to fruitful synthesis of these opposites.

[24] Some Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state argue that its prospective harms to Israel could be reduced or even eliminated by ensuring that new state’s immediate “demilitarization.” But for informed reasoning contra this argument, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[25] For much earlier writings by this author concerning the prospective impact of a Palestinian state on Israeli nuclear deterrence and Israeli nuclear strategy, see: Louis René Beres, “Security Threats and Effective Remedies: Israel’s Strategic, Tactical and Legal Options,” Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, “After the `Peace Process:’ Israel, Palestine, and Regional Nuclear War,” DICKINSON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 15, No. 2., Winter 1997, pp. 301-335; Louis René Beres, “Limits of Nuclear Deterrence: The Strategic Risks and Dangers to Israel of False Hope,” ARMED FORCES AND SOCIETY, Vol. 23., No. 4., Summer 1997, pp. 539-568; Louis René Beres, “Getting Beyond Nuclear Deterrence: Israel, Intelligence and False Hope,” INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF INTELLIGENCE AND COUNTERINTELLIGENCE, Vol. 10., No. 1., Spring 1997, pp. 75-90; Louis René Beres, “On Living in a Bad Neighborhood: The Informed Argument for Israeli Nuclear Weapons,” POLITICAL CROSSROADS, Vol. 5., Nos. 1/2, 1997, pp. 143-157; Louis René Beres, “Facing the Apocalypse: Israel and the `Peace Process,'” BTZEDEK: THE JOURNAL OF RESPONSIBLE JEWISH COMMENTARY (Israel), Vol. 1., No. 3., Fall/Winter 1997, pp. 32-35; Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why Golan Demilitarization Would Not Work,” STRATEGIC REVIEW, Vol. XXIV, No. 1., Winter 1996, pp. 75-76; Louis René Beres, “Implications of a Palestinian State for Israeli Security and Nuclear War: A Jurisprudential Assessment,” DICKINSON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 17., No. 2., 1999, pp. 229-286; Louis René Beres, “A Palestinian State and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” CROSSROADS: AN INTERNATIONAL SOCIO-POLITICAL JOURNAL, No. 31, 1991, pp. 97-104; Louis René Beres, “The Question of Palestine and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” THE POLITICAL QUARTERLY, Vol. 62, No. 4., October-December 1991, pp. 451-460; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Palestine and Regional Nuclear War,” BULLETIN OF PEACE PROPOSALS, Vol. 22., No. 2., June 1991, pp. 227-234; Louis René Beres, “A Palestinian State: Implications for Israel’s Security and the Possibility of Nuclear War,” BULLETIN OF THE JERUSALEM INSTITUTE FOR WESTERN DEFENCE  (Israel), Vol. 4., Bulletin No, 3., October 1991, pp. 3-10; Louis René Beres, ISRAELI SECURITY AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS, PSIS Occasional Papers, No. 1/1990, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, Switzerland, 40 pp; and Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, Palestine and the Risk of Nuclear War in the Middle East,” STRATEGIC REVIEW, Vol. XIX, No. 4., Fall 1991, pp. 48-55

[26] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had recognized the importance of strategic depth. Although he did not use such a precisely modern term, Sun-Tzu did note expressly as follows: “If there is no place to go, it is fatal terrain.” See Sun-Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 11, “Nine Terrains.”

[27] Pakistan has been tilting more recognizably toward small or tactical nuclear weapons, indicating a growing preference for “counterforce” or nuclear war fighting strategies of deterrence.  Since Pakistan announced its first test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile back in 2011, that country’s emphasis upon smaller nuclear ordnance has been very conspicuously oriented toward the primary deterrence of conventional war.

[28] This also brings to mind the essential “seamlessness” of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. In this connection, see the recent joint article by Professor Beres and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval:  https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[29] “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in his classic discussion of “friction” in On War, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”

[30] See recent article by this author at Modern War Institute, West Point:  Louis Rene Beres, https://mwi.usma.edu/israel-samson-option-interconnected-world/

[31] Comments Emmerich de Vattel in his legal classic, The Law of Nations (1758): “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of nations, is that each nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of the other nations.”

[32] The Israeli nuclear strategist could benefit here from Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s instructive remark about the German philosopher Hegel: “Hegel made famous his aphorism that all the rational is real, and all the real is rational; but there are many of us who, unconvinced by Hegel, continue to believe that the real, the really real, is irrational – that reason builds upon irrationalities.”

[33] The term “preemption” has strategic but not legal meaning. Usually, it references a defensive military strategy that involves striking a presumed enemy first, with the more-or-less carefully calculated expectation that the only determinable alternative is to be struck first itself. A preemptive attack differs from a preventive attack in that the latter is launched merely out of an ongoing concern (whether correct or incorrect) to halt any longer term deterioration in a particular military balance, and not in response to any precise fear of imminent hostilities. As a preventive strike can never be per se permissible under international law, the distinction between preemptive and preventive war is always jurisprudentially important.

[34] Preemption has figured importantly in previous Israeli strategic calculations.  This was most glaringly apparent in the wars of 1956 and 1967, and also in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.  Significantly, it was essentially the failure to preempt in October 1973 that contributed to heavy Israeli losses on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts during the Yom Kippur war, and almost brought about an Israeli defeat.  During January, May, and October 2013, Israel, understandably apprehensive about Damascus’ supply of military materials to Syria’s Hezbollah surrogates in Lebanon, preemptively struck pertinent hard targets within Syria itself. For a jurisprudential assessment of these undeclared but still-appropriate expressions of anticipatory self-defense, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, “Striking Hezbollah-Bound Weapons in Syria: Israel’s Actions Under International Law,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, Online, posted August 26, 2013.

[35] Even in such potentially fearsome circumstances, authoritative law stipulates that Israel must first seek to exhaust all peaceful remedies. A similar jurisprudential imperative can be found in Jewish religious law.  “When thou comest near to a city to fight against it,” proclaims Deuteronomy 20:10, “then proclaim peace to it.”  Maimonides also calls for diplomatic solutions before hostilities begin to milhemet mitzvah (a war commanded by the Torah or Pentateuch): “No war is declared against any nation before peace offers are made to it.”  The biblical commentator Abrabanel (1437-1508) argues not to hurry to go to war.  For more complete examinations of war in the Jewish tradition, consult Efraim Inbar, “War in Jewish Tradition,” The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 1987, pp. 83-99.

[36] On the crime of “aggression,” see especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[37] For a potentially contra view, see: See Ian Brownlie, International Law and the Use of Force by States, 272-73 (1963) (asserting that the United Nations Charter modified the international custom of anticipatory self-defense and that self-defense is justified only in response to an actual armed attack); Wright, The Cuban Quarantine, 57 AM J. INT’L L. 546, 559-63 (1963) (interpreting Article 51 in conjunction with Article 33 to allow only a “peaceful means” of dispute resolution and a prohibition on the use of unilateral force until an actual armed conflict occurred); L. HENKIN, HOW NATIONS BEHAVE 141-44 (2d ed. 1979) (arguing that the Charter restricts the traditional right of self-defense to those situations where an armed attack has occurred); L. GOODRICH, E. HAMBRO,  A. SIMONS, CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS:  COMMENTARY AND DOCUMENTS 178 (1946) (advocating a restrictive interpretation of Article 51 under which self-defense is only justified in response to an actual armed attack).

[38] Regarding “massive retaliation,” it was followed, in the United States, by the doctrine of “flexible response,” and ultimately evolved into doctrine known as a “countervailing nuclear strategy.”  Codified in Presidential Directive # 59, which was signed on July 25 1980, and later reaffirmed by President Ronald Reagan, this strategy represented the then latest retreat from the core doctrine authoritatively defined by John Foster Dulles on January 13, 1954.  To demonstrate continuing flexibility, the countervailing strategy envisioned a broad array of nuclear retaliatory choices operating within a carefully defined spectrum of deterrence.  See, in this connection, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Presidential Directive 59: A Critical Assessment,” Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College, Vol. XI, No. 1., March 1981, pp. 19-28.

[39] The core point here had already been understood by Israeli strategist and IDF Military Intelligence Head, Yehoshafat Harkabi, back in the mid-1960s. Writing in Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace, Harkabi indicated: “It must be emphasized that the impulse to act first, the competition to preempt, is not a result of aggressive tendencies or bloodlust on either side. It is a defensive action inherent in the very instability of an unfortunate situation, in which survival depends upon opening fire first, or, in other words, upon initiating a surprise attack.” (See Y. Harkabi, Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace, translated from the Hebrew, Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1966, p. 42).

[40] On madness, see Seneca, 1st Century AD/CE: “We are mad, not only individuals, but nations also. We restrain manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war, and the so-called glory of killing whole peoples? Man, the gentlest of animals, is not ashamed to glory in blood-shedding, and to wage war when even the beasts are living in peace together.” (Letters, 95).

[41] For the very earliest scholarly commentary by this author on anticipatory self defense under international law, with special reference to Israel, see:  Louis René Beres and (COL./IDF/Res.) Yoash Tsiddon Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 9., No. 2., 1995, pp. 437 – 449; Louis René Beres, “Preserving the Third Temple: Israel’s Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law,”  VANDERBILT JOURNAL OF TRANSNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 26, No. 1.,  April 1993, pp. 111- 148;  Louis René Beres,  “After the Gulf War: Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  HOUSTON JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW,  Vol. 13, No. 2.,  Spring 1991,  pp. 259 – 280;  Louis René Beres,  “Striking `First:’  Israel’s Post Gulf War Options Under International Law,”  LOYOLA OF LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL,  Vol. 14,  Nov. 1991,  No. 1.,  pp. 1 – 24;  Louis René Beres,  “Israel and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  ARIZONA JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW,  Vol. 8, 1991,  pp. 89 – 99;  and Louis René Beres,  “After the SCUD Attacks:  Israel, `Palestine,’ and Anticipatory Self-Defense,”  EMORY INTERNATIONAL LAW REVIEW,  Vol. 6,  No. 1.,  Spring 1992,  pp. 71 – 104.  For an examination of assassination as a permissible form of anticipatory self-defense by Israel, see, Louis René Beres, “On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: The Case of Israel,” HOFSTRA LAW REVIEW, Vol. 20, No. 2., Winter 1991, pp.  321 – 340.  For more general assessments of assassination as anticipatory self-defense under international law by this author, see:  Louis René Beres, “The Permissibility of State-Sponsored Assassination During Peace and War,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991, pp. 231 – 249;  and  Louis René Beres,  “Victims and Executioners:  Atrocity, Assassination and International Law,”  CAMBRIDGE REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS,  Winter/Spring, 1993.

[42] A related question concerns legality in any ongoing war begun by another state. Here we may recall the opinion of Grotius in his COMMENTARY ON THE LAW OF PRIZE AND BOOTY:  “…it is obvious that a just war can be waged in return, without recourse to judicial procedure, against an opponent who has begun an unjust war; nor will any declaration of that just war be required….  For as Aelian says, citing Plato as his authority–any war undertaken for the necessary repulsion of injury, is proclaimed not by a crier nor by a herald, but by the voice of Nature herself.”  See H. Grotius, DE IURE PRAEDAE COMMENTARIUS, ed., by James Brown Scott, a translation of the original manuscript of 1604 by Gladys L. Williams, with the collaboration of Walter H. Zeydel, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1964, p. 96.

[43] In this regard, one ought to bear in mind the still-relevant warning of Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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