One could be forgiven for reading a startling threat into the comments made earlier this week by Israeli Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command. In remarks that have thus far been reported mainly in paraphrase, Eisenberg suggested that the changes to the regional strategic environment produced by the Arab Spring have increased “the likelihood of an all-out war” in the Middle East. “Speaking to the Institute for National Security Studies,” reports the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz (Sept. 5), “Eisenberg said that such a conflict could potentially include the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
While these comments could be cast in a defensive light, they give reason for pause when considered alongside longstanding Israeli “defense” doctrine. As if to emphasize the point, Ha'aretz followed up with a Sept. 6 piece linking the diplomatic challenges facing Israel this autumn with questions of nuclear strategy.
The article of Sept. 6 is written by Louis René Beres, who for decades has duly translated the strategic circumstances of the day into a rationale for aggressive nuclear belligerence. True to form, Beres presents the push at the United Nations towards nominal statehood by the weak and dependent leadership of today's Palestinian Authority as an obvious threat to “Israel's sheer physical survival. After Palestine,” Beres argues, “Israel would require greater self-reliance in all existential military matters. In turn, such self-reliance would demand: (1) a more comprehensive and explicit nuclear strategy involving refined deterrence, preemption and war fighting capabilities; and (2) a corresponding and thoroughly updated conventional war strategy.” Thus, Beres once again declares, it is necessary for Israel to reinforce its power in the realm of “what military strategists call 'escalation dominance' — namely, the capacity to fully determine sequential moves towards greater destructiveness.”
This all sounds a bit abstract. But it is important to emphasize three points: first, that disproportionate retaliation is an aspect of Israeli military doctrine that is routinely applied to devastating effect; second, that thinking within Israel's strategic establishment persistently links routine, localized violence to nuclear threats; and third, that Beres, though a US-based strategic analyst, has been closely tied to the (quasi-)official development of Israeli nuclear doctrine.
The Israeli military establishment's penchant for disproportionate
“retaliation” is hardly a secret. Year by year, it is more or less publicly affirmed. Consider, to take just one example from 2011, the comments of Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak concerning events in early April. On April 7, an Israeli school bus in the vicinity of Gaza was hit by a missile, critically injuring a 16-year-old who later died of his wounds. On April 10, Barak reflected upon the ensuing Israeli strikes: “They have sustained heavy damages: Over 20 of their people were killed in the last two days, and over 35 were killed in the past 10 days.”
Although reported details were sketchy, it is clear that these numbers can
only add up if they include all Palestinian fatalities: for example, the 10-year-old whose death was reported by Agence France Press on April 10; “19-year-old Nidal Qudeh, who was studying to be a medical secretary, and her mother … [both killed] outside their small house about noon on [April 8] when an Israeli drone fired a missile” (New York Times, April 10); and at least several others to whom even the most elastic concept of “combatant” could not conceivably apply. Confirming the basic logic, public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch explained that there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”
Deterrents, whether military, diplomatic or grassroots political in character, could and sometimes do limit application of this doctrine. But
disproportionate and indiscriminate vengeance is, and has long been, the rule rather than the exception. “Those who want to murder children in Israel,” in the words of Dan Halutz, who in turn headed up the Israel Air Force (IAF) and the IDF General Staff, “should take into account that their own children might get killed.” Regarding what qualms one might feel regarding aerial assassinations and their heavy “collateral” toll, Halutz bluntly explained: “I feel a light bump in the plane, as a result of the release. A second later it passes, and that is all. That is what I feel.”
The link between such localized violence and nuclear threats, for its
part, also comes up persistently. From the far right of the Likud party, anchor of Israel's current governing coalition, the unabashedly fascist Moshe Feiglin has long been on record crudely alluding to the point. Discussing negotiations with Hamas for the release of some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in return for the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Feiglin had this bright idea: “We take a list of [the prisoners] they want and simply kill half of them, and every day he is not released, we kill another one. If they kill him, then you attack, and you make sure that there is not one Hamas leader who stays alive.” One way or the other, Feiglin stressed, Israeli military power should permit the dictating of terms: “We have atomic bombs, and we cannot rescue a soldier 10 kilometres away?”
Granted, Feiglin is extreme. But even in more respectable circles, plausible links between localized violence and Israel's regional nuclear monopoly are regularly identified.
Concerning Iran, for instance, note that many of the Israeli strategic analysts who assume that the Iranian government is indeed pursuing a military nuclear path have long conceded that in all likelihood, its “basic motives for striving to obtain nuclear weapons are defense and deterrence”; such a “balance of nuclear terror” is nonetheless considered an acute threat. An Iranian first strike being a pretty preposterous notion, a more realistic concern is that the acquisition of nuclear weapon capabilities by any regional challenger could contribute to “handcuffing Israel's room to maneuver on the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts”. Even if it did not face explicit threats, so goes the logic, Israel might be dissuaded from forceful action against those it is accustomed to attacking with relative impunity.
Amidst Israel's operations against Palestinians and Lebanese this past decade, then, what sorts of threats have accompanied exercise of its regional nuclear monopoly (jointly held with the US, of course)? Here we return to Beres.
Recall that Israel has a formal posture of nuclear “ambiguity” or “opacity”, thin as this cover may be. Nonetheless, its security establishment sometimes gives signals to indicate the general tenor of Israeli nuclear doctrine, often with the cooperation of allied associates. The convening in 2002 of “Project Daniel,” a group of strategic advisers assembled to prepare nuclear doctrine recommendations for then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, is a notable case in point. Project Daniel involved analysts with experience in Israel's Ministry of Defense, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and the Israel Air Force (IAF). Acting as its chair was none other than Louis René Beres.
In 2009, Beres publicly reflected upon their findings in a report to Israel's leading annual strategic gathering, the Herzliya Conference (the recommendations had been presented to Sharon several years earlier). Beres explained: “if the present Government of Israel were to follow the expressed advice of Project Daniel, prospective aggressors would understand fully and in advance that launching certain kinds of attacks against Israel would turn their own cities to vapor and ash.” (See his article from this past Tuesday for a sense of where Beres sees obvious “Arab aggression”.)
In sum, Beres and Project Daniel opted to adapt the US nuclear lunacy of the Nixon era into Israeli operational plans. Students of US nuclear belligerence may recall Henry Kissinger’s “strategy of ambiguity,” which “aims to exploit the confusion endemic to any conflict situation, and to convey the impression that one might be irrational enough to take dangerous, even suicidal, steps.” According to White House aide H.R. Haldeman (of Watergate fame), Richard Nixon elaborated this approach into what he called “the Madman Theory”.
With Mississippi-style lynch mobs rampaging across the West Bank — albeit swapping the burning cross for the spray-painted Magen David, and burning mosques more often than churches — Israel's nuclear policy advisers appear to have found another way to channel the best of US history into 21st-century Israel.
The 2009 Herzliya report, then, implies a strategy of maintaining Israel's regional military predominance and freedom of action by making the most horrific of regional scenarios appear as the only alternative. Its recommended first-strike doctrine is based on a policy of ominous ambiguity. Tripwires for Israeli nuclear “retaliation” should include certain conventional attacks on Israel, or even the mere development of non-conventional capacities by a regional rival. The threshold for nuclear strikes should be vague and unpredictable, but should appear, à la Nixon, to be irrationally low: “Whether or not such a display would be an example of ‘pretended irrationality’ or of an authentic willingness to act,” Beres explains, “would be anyone’s guess.”
The proposed second-strike doctrine in the event of nuclear or certain biological attacks on Israel translates the crudest form of broad-strokes Orientalism into military terms, lumping all people in the Middle East together as an amorphous enemy with neither national nor military/civilian distinctions. The gist? Nuclear strikes on approximately fifteen cities across the region, “unambiguously directed at enemy populations, not at enemy weapons or infrastructures.” Vapor and ash, indeed.
Against this backdrop, this week's statements by Eisenberg, like Tuesday's musings by Beres concerning the prospect of “fully nuclear reprisals” for conventional attacks on Israel, constitute something substantially more sinister than idle prediction or analysis. As Israel and its allies leave the world guessing just how many buildings its settler mobs will torch this year, just how many people its air force will bomb, and just how credible these occasional threats of truly cataclysmic massacre are, the need for international action to constrain Israel's options appears rather compelling.
* * *
This year's Herzliya conference brought Israel's leading strategists and their allies together in February, just as Egyptian popular rebellion was bringing down the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. Addressing the gathering, Amos Gilad, as influential a figure as exists within Israel's security establishment, bluntly declared: “In the Middle East and the Arab world, there is no place for democracy; this is the truth, and we prefer this.”
One can understand the sentiment. In the final days of the George W. Bush presidency (December 31 2008), amidst the aerial massacre in Gaza that opened what is now infamous as Operation Cast Lead (with IAF pilots feeling more than a few bumps), the White House praised the constructive diplomacy of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, it was not by giving voice to popular sentiment that these states earned US accolades.
As regional elites and Western powers alike work to manage and contain the impact of this year's democratic upheavals, Israeli threats aggravate an already difficult situation facing popular movements throughout the region. Under these circumstances, the burden of challenging the Israeli state's belligerence should not be borne only by those targeted with its nuclear warheads.
-Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in England (and a research student at the European Centre for Palestine Studies, Exeter). He hosts a writings site at notesonhypocrisy.com.
 “Maj. Gen. Eisenberg: Strength of Homefront…,” States News Service (September 6, 2011).
 Ehud Barak interviewed by Arye Golan, “Israel vows Gaza ceasefire if Hamas halts missile attacks,” Voice of Israel Network B via BBC Monitoring Middle East (April 10, 2011).
 “Hamas declares Gaza emergency amid Israeli strikes,” Agence France Press (April 10, 2011); Fares Akram and Ethan Bronner, “Violence rises as Israel and Hamas trade blows,” New York Times (April 10, 2011), p. 12; Yaakov Lappin, “‘It’s Cast Lead all over again for us,’ Eshkol Council head Halin tells ‘Post.’ Aharonovitch: There is no immunity for anyone in Gaza,” Jerusalem Post (April 10, 2011), p. 3.
 Yoram Peri, Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006), p. 181.
 Josiah Daniel Ryan, “Kill Hamas Prisoners Until Shalit Released, Likud’s Far Right Tells English-Speakers,” The Jerusalem Post (September 23 2009), via BBC Monitoring Middle East.
 Ephraim Kam, A Nuclear Iran: What Does it Mean, and What Can be Done (Institute for National Security Studies, 2007), pp. 50-53.
 Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action against Iran (Washington, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2008), p. 21.
 Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Project Daniel — Working Paper for the Ninth Annual Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel's National Security and Resilience,” February 2009 (http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/2905LouisReneBeres.pdf), p. 2.
 Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod, To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans (South End Press, 1987), pp. 122-123.
 Beres, “Israel, Iran and Project Daniel,” p. 3.
 Beres, “Israel, Iran and Project Daniel,” pp. 6-7. Emphasis added.
 Michele K. Esposito, "Quarterly Update on Conflict and Diplomacy, 16 November 2008 – 15 February 2009,” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 38, No. 3 (Spring 2009), p. 306