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