No use for nuclear weapons

By Mostafa Elwi Saif, January 16, 2014

Round One made clear that the key obstacle to banning chemical weapons from the Middle East is that Israel appears unwilling to renounce its nuclear arsenal under any circumstances—while Egypt is unwilling to participate in a chemical-weapon-free zone until Israel does renounce its nuclear weapons.

Why is Israel so unwilling to discuss nuclear disarmament? It is because, as Emily Landau put it in her first essay, Israel sees its "policy of nuclear ambiguity and low-profile deterrence [as] an insurance policy against any enemy that would threaten the state existentially." This statement, logical on the surface, in fact suffers from three serious flaws.

First, Israel cannot be said to face an existential threat when, in the many Arab-Israeli conflicts that have occurred since World War II, Israel has almost always been the aggressor. The 1956 Suez Crisis, the war fought in June 1967, the Israeli occupation of Lebanon beginning in 1982, and the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2012—all of these were initiated by Israel. Arab nations were the initiators only in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces on the Sinai Peninsula and in the Golan Heights to regain territory that had been occupied by Israel in 1967.

Second, Israel’s nuclear weapons have served no deterrence function in the past. Despite Israel’s nuclear arsenal, Arab states and even non-state political movements have continued over the decades to use military power to defend their strategic interests. This severely undercuts the argument that Israel uses nuclear weapons to deter attack.

The third issue is that nuclear-armed countries simply don’t use their nuclear weapons. The only exceptions to this rule have been the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, carried out by the United States at a time when that nation was the world’s only nuclear weapon state and thus faced no threat of nuclear reprisal. Since 1945, the other eight nations with nuclear arsenals have gone to war many times, and not once have they used nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom in the Suez Crisis, India in 1999’s Kargil War, and the United States in its many conflicts—all these nations (among others) have declined to use nuclear weapons.

Some might argue that Israel is an exception—that as its region’s sole nuclear power, Israel is similar to the United States in 1945, and need not fear nuclear reprisal. But this view does not take into account an important characteristic of Middle East security: Though Israel may well have the region’s strongest conventional military, it is certainly not the region’s most powerful nation. In demographic terms it is much smaller than several Arab countries. It lacks the financial resources of the major oil-producing states. So Israel, even if it used nuclear weapons, would not become preeminent in the region; it would only incite antagonism.

The conclusion one can draw from all this is that nuclear weapons serve no purpose in the Middle East—not for Israel and not for anyone else. Israel could only use nuclear weapons as a last resort, and in a way that no other state has ever used them before. Israel’s nuclear arsenal should not stand in the way of eliminating all weapons of mass destruction from the region.

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