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The Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Desert outside Dimona. (Jim Hollander / Courtesy Reuters)
The debate over Iran’s nuclear program has made clear that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, Israeli strategic thinking is flawed. In the 1960s, Israel developed a nuclear capability as the ultimate security guarantee, a last resort to be used if the country’s very existence was threatened. This capability became popularly known as the “Samson Option,” after the Jewish biblical hero who, rather than face death alone, brought down the roof of a Philistine temple, killing both himself and his enemies. At the same time, Israeli strategy has been guided by a belief that any adversary developing weapons of mass destruction is an existential threat that must be stopped. This belief came to be known as the Begin Doctrine, after Prime Minister Menachem Begin used force to stop the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981.
This leads to a paradox: the basic potential advantage of the “Samson Option” is that it could deter a nuclear-armed foe. But the Begin Doctrine prevents Israel from benefiting from the “Samson Option,” as it seeks to ensure that the situation in which a nuclear capability would be most useful will never come to pass.
Today, the majority of Israel’s strategists promote some kind of a preventive attack on Iran, as they do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred and reject the notion of stability based on mutual assured destruction (MAD). Some suggest that Iranian leaders, driven by messianic religious ideology, would use their weapons to destroy Israel, regardless of the costs. Others argue that even if Iranian decision-makers were rational, Iran’s conspiratorial worldview and lack of direct communications with Jerusalem could lead Tehran to misread Israeli signals and to miscalculate, triggering unintended nuclear escalation. Another common argument against MAD is that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would result in a dangerous proliferation cascade across the Middle East.
But these attitudes obscure the real reason that Israel refuses to live with an Iranian bomb. Israel’s intolerance of MAD is not limited to any particular adversary or set of circumstances, but, rather, derives from its paradoxical nuclear strategy. The “Samson Option” is by nature an asymmetrical deterrence model: Israel seeks to deter without being deterred.
Maintaining asymmetrical deterrence would be impossible if Iran did ultimately develop a nuclear weapon. But Israel need not see that outcome as the end of the world. If anything, deterring a nuclear-armed adversary is exactly what Israel’s nuclear capability is good for. But in order to make the best use of its “Samson Option,” Israel needs to start thinking about and publicly debating how it would position itself against a nuclear-armed Iran. In short, Israel needs a new nuclear strategy.
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
For most countries, the primary goal of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. But Israel’s “Samson Option” has nothing to do with the nuclear balance of terror. The balance of terror, known to most strategists as an unavoidable evil of the atomic age, is seen in Israel not as a strategic challenge but as a materialized, existential, and unacceptable threat. Although the “Samson Option” hypothetically enables MAD, Israeli leaders will have nothing of it. The development of nuclear capabilities by an adversary is a casus belli and demands immediate diplomatic, clandestine, or military preemption. This explains why Israel launched airstrikes on Iraq in 1981 and, reportedly, on Syria in 2007 in order to secure its nuclear monopoly.
Instead, Israel’s nuclear program was allegedly devised to serve as an ultimate guarantor against a doomsday scenario in which an all-out conventional attack by a coalition of enemies threatened the total annihilation of the state. But it is not clear that Israel’s nuclear deterrent has had any bearing on the strategic calculus of its foes during past wars. It did not deter the Egyptians and Syrians from invading Israel in 1973, Iraq from launching missiles on Israel in 1991, the Palestinians from turning to violence during two intifadas, or Hezbollah and Hamas from raining rockets on Israel during the last decade. None of these attacks were kept at bay by a balance of military force that overwhelmingly favored Israel.
To be sure, a nuclear capability would be hypothetically useful if Israel’s conventional qualitative military edge were completely eroded, leaving only a nuclear last resort. But such a scenario is unlikely; the raison d’être of Israel’s national security policy is to retain conventional superiority, and the country is constantly building up its forces toward this goal. Furthermore, at least for the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to guarantee Israel’s military edge.
So if MAD is not an option, and Israel can deter conventional threats with conventional forces, then what is the “Samson Option” good for? It seems that Israel derives no concrete benefits from its nuclear capability. To understand, then, why Israel produced a nuclear capability and crafted a deterrence strategy for a scenario that it cannot tolerate, one has to look at Israel’s unique strategic culture.
Unlike other countries, Israel did not undertake its nuclear project because of geostrategic aspirations, a desire for prestige, or to defend against nuclear adversaries. Even in the late 1950s, when the project was conceived as a so-called great equalizer against larger Arab militaries, Israel’s conventional might was already seen as the main countermeasure against its neighbors. When Israel reportedly crossed the nuclear threshold in 1967, the conventional power of the Israeli army was at its peak, leaving no doubt to Israelis that it could effectively deter its opponents in the future.
For Israelis, security practices and military innovations are usually not driven by strategic theory but by ad-hoc solutions to burning problems and by creative improvisations. As the historian Avner Cohen showed in The Worst-Kept Secret, Israel’s nuclear project was initiated without a careful analysis of the long-term strategic objectives, applications, and implications of this new capability. With little political guidance, the Israelis at first focused only on building infrastructure and capabilities, and avoided articulating complex issues of nuclear doctrine.
More than for any perceived security benefits, Israel’s nuclear project was conceived for psychological comfort in face of the unthinkable quintessence of all Jewish and Israeli fears: a second Holocaust. For millennia, life in the diaspora was an uninterrupted struggle for survival. Enslavement, persecution, and systematic annihilation have had a profound impact on the Israeli approach to national security. This fundamental sense of insecurity, a siege mentality that results in the assumption that the country is under a constant existential threat, predisposes Jerusalem to seek absolute security. At the core of Israeli strategy rests the notion that the country can survive and politically engage its neighbors only from a position of military superiority; symmetry in conventional and nuclear affairs is unthinkable.
A number of thinkers, including former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, argue that because the “Samson Option” offers it few tangible benefits, Israel should give up its nuclear project in exchange for Iran doing the same. But this argument overlooks Israel’s strategic mentality. Without understanding Israeli strategic culture, foreign observers cannot fully grasp just how profound the psychological barriers are that Israel must surmount in order to think systematically about how to live with and deter a nuclear-armed Iran.
Given that Israel’s nuclear capability exists to calm the dread of perceived existential threats, Jerusalem would accept nuclear disarmament only as a consequence of a regional peace agreement and normalization, not as a prelude to them. Any other solution would be seen as premature and counterproductive. This approach to disarmament, coupled with an aversion to consider MAD, has put Israel in a strategic bind with regard to Iran.
Whether Israel can stop Iran from getting the bomb is the question of the day. But if, for whatever reason, the Begin Doctrine fails, the far more important question looming on the horizon is how to live with a nuclear Iran. Israel’s security elite is inclined to believe that the end of the country’s regional nuclear monopoly -- brought on by an Iranian nuclear weapon -- would leave it defenseless and vulnerable to total annihilation. But Iran’s developing a nuclear bomb would discredit only the Begin Doctrine, not the “Samson Option.” And in that case, Israel would need to embrace its “Samson Option” and adjust its strategy to derive the most tangible benefits from it.
To begin with, Israel should consider outlining its nuclear posture to enhance strategic stability and assure Israelis that their government could successfully deter a nuclear Iran. This would entail communicating its redlines and how it would respond if Iran crossed them. Israel may be uninterested in full disclosure so as to avoid international pressure to disarm. But Jerusalem can find a way to outline a general doctrine without revealing specific capabilities. An ambiguous posture alone might not be enough to ensure stable deterrence, but a full disclosure could be provocative.
Israeli strategists would also have to explore the relationship between conventional and nuclear deterrence and examine whether the Israel Defense Forces could deter a nuclear-armed Iran more credibly with its conventional might. The optimal balance between deterrence by denial (using defensive measures to limit the effectiveness of an enemy strike) and deterrence by punishment (threatening a heavy offensive retaliation to any attack) should be found and communicated to Iran. Both Israel and Iran would need to introduce a vocabulary of MAD so that each side understood the rules of the game. And to avoid any nuclear miscalculation, each side would need to carefully study the other’s strategic culture.
Today, Israel’s deterrence strategy, like its other strategies, is not a written doctrine but a vague, tacit concept. Any causality between Israel’s actions and its adversaries’ behavior is more assumed than proven. Israel lacks an institution charged with verifying the effectiveness of its deterrence. Jerusalem cannot afford this in the nuclear age -- significant intellectual and organizational energy should be invested in formulating, managing, and evaluating deterrence policy on the national level.
Finally, if Iran gets the bomb, Israel will have to overcome several deeply ingrained beliefs before it can make the necessary adjustments to its deterrence strategy. Israel would need to accept the irony of its security stemming from the constant threat of annihilation. This would entail a fundamental departure from Israel’s habit of seeing absolute military superiority as the key to its stability. Israel’s government would also have to learn to see Iran in a different light. Viewing Iran as a reasonable, if radical, actor would be a jarring departure from earlier beliefs, but it would be a necessary precondition to any kind of interaction between the two countries. Seeing Iran’s leaders as religiously motivated fanatics could lead to a nuclear war.
Israel has sworn to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state, but has not prepared for what happens if it does. So far, Israel’s policymakers have avoided publicly exploring strategies for coping with a nuclear-armed Iran out of fear that talking about the issue would compromise Israel’s nuclear opacity and communicate Israel’s acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. But public debate could generate insights on how to establish stable deterrence and avoid dangerous escalation. It could help Israel overcome the cognitive dissonances of its nuclear strategy, and, in making Tehran familiar with the Israeli mind-set, minimize the chances of miscalculation. This debate should start now, because the cost of waiting until the morning after Iran has a nuclear weapon, if it does in fact acquire one, is too great.