Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 07:37 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 07:37 | SYDNEY

Israeli disarmament: It's not gonna happen



28 August 2008 16:12

Before coming down on Raoul’s side of their debate, let me offer some support for Sam’s proposal that Israel should pre-emptively disarm. Look at it this way. Israel now finds itself confronting the logic of non-proliferation that many others have faced. Back in the 1960s and 70s many countries, including Australia, weighed the benefits of building nuclear forces against the costs of driving their neighbours to do the same, and opted to abstain. Israel took the opposite view. It can hardly be surprised that one of its neighbours has finally chosen to respond in kind.

Indeed, the surprise is that it has taken so long. I suspect the Israeli leaders who first made the decision to go nuclear assumed that their neighbours would do so too, sooner rather than later; they just wanted to get in first. They probably never expected to enjoy a unilateral nuclear advantage for as long as they have. Now their successors face losing it, Israel would be well advised to take Sam’s advice and go back and reconsider their original decision.

And Israel does have options. The best support for Sam’s view that Israel could remain secure without nuclear weapons is that it could rely on US extended deterrence. Israelis might not like relying on another country for their security, but plenty do, including Japan, which faces real and present nuclear threats. On the face of it, the extended deterrence option looks pretty strong. America’s strategic commitment to Israel can hardly be doubted, and neither can its capability to annihilate Iran. So does Israel really need its own deterrent?

But Raoul of course is right to say that Israel’s weapons are not the only reason Iran wants them too, so Israeli disarmament alone would not ensure Iranian nuclear abstention. To do that, Iran would need to be assured that its security more broadly could be guaranteed without its own nuclear forces. Only America could do that: so the second condition for a de-nuclearised Middle East would be a radical rapprochement between the US and Iran, including the extension of US nuclear deterrence to cover Iran. 

That is perhaps not completely impossible, but it is a hell of a long-shot. Moreover, it introduces an ugly little catch-22: Israeli disarmament would presuppose closer US-Iranian relations, but those closer relations would erode Israeli confidence in US extended deterrence, and therefore undermine the arguments for disarmament.

Which helps to explain why, in the end, this is not going to happen. So I’m with Raoul: Israel will not disarm. But the Israelis cannot escape the consequences of that choice, which is that Iran will move towards a nuclear capability, as the fathers of Israel’s nuclear program must always have expected. The best we can hope for is the emergence of a deterrent balance between them. It might be a good idea to start debating what can be done to make that balance as stable as possible.

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