Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded strongly to an earlier verbal attack launched by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. To be sure, as Mr. Netanyahu pointed out, Palestinian allegations of an Israeli-inflicted genocide were not only preposterous but also deeply ironic. After all, both the PA and Hamas are unambiguously on record in favor of eradicating Israel altogether, an open expression of criminal intent.
Addressing another irony, Mr. Netanyahu pointed out that “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree,” and that there can be absolutely no justification to fighting one while supporting the other. “Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas,” the prime minister declared correctly. On all of these points, however, it is not entirely clear that President Obama is on the same page.
Even while bombing ISIS, aka the Islamic State, Mr. Obama continues to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state, a plainly jihadist country that would inevitably be run by some adversarial combination of Hamas and the PA. Somehow, Mr. Obama doesn’t want to acknowledge that any Palestinian Arab state would promptly exhibit the very same jihadist tendencies as our own current terrorist targets in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Why, it is time for him to inquire, should we be fighting Islamist terrorists in one part of the Middle East, and simultaneously supporting distinctly similar others, just a short distance away?
Where are we now heading? At some point, if they can finally reconcile, the PA and Hamas will declare the existence of a fully sovereign Palestinian state. Any such state, however, whatever its theoretical “self-determination” rationale, and whatever its finally agreed-upon administrative form, would enlarge the risks of terrorism and war.
Already, Palestinian orientations to aggression are very easy to decipher. Official PA maps identify Israel as merely a part of Palestine. In essence, both the PA and Hamas have agreed upon a cartographic destruction of Israel proper — not a “two-state solution,” but rather a conspicuously “final solution.”
Any Palestinian state could have a directly detrimental impact on American strategic interests and, of course, on Israel’s physical survival. After Palestine, Israel, facing an even more expressly formidable correlation of enemy forces, would require greater self-reliance. Any such enhanced self-reliance would then call for a more coherent and more openly disclosed nuclear strategy, one focusing comprehensively upon deterrence, pre-emption, and war-fighting capabilities; and a corollary and interpenetrating conventional war strategy.
By definition, a Palestinian state would make Israel’s conventional war capabilities increasingly problematic. In response, Israel’s national command authority would likely make the country’s still-implicit nuclear deterrent less ambiguous. Any such retreat from deliberate nuclear ambiguity, if incremental and limited, and if undertaken in coordinated conjunction with certain calibrated efforts to control escalation, could serve Israel as a potentially potent force multiplier.
Ending long-standing policy of keeping its “bomb in the basement” might enhance Israel’s security for a time, but could also heighten overall chances of hostile nuclear weapons use. If, for example, Iran were allowed to “go nuclear,” which now seems rather certain, belligerent nuclear violence would not necessarily be limited to Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, it could take the form of a genuinely unprecedented nuclear exchange.
Significantly, a nuclear war could arrive in Israel not only as a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise missile attack, but also as a manifestly catastrophic outcome, intended or otherwise, of escalation. If, for example, an enemy state such as Iran were to initiate “only” conventional or biological attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem might still opt to respond with certain fully nuclear reprisals. Or, if this enemy state were to commence hostilities employing solely conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s non-nuclear reprisals might then be met, in a still palpably uncertain strategic environment, with certain enemy nuclear counterstrikes.
In all such adversarial circumstances, Israel would be compelled to successfully demonstrate escalation dominance. The challenge to Jerusalem of any such complex demonstration could be significantly enlarged by the presence of a new and probably pernicious state of Palestine.
The establishment of a Palestinian state could immediately undermine Israel’s necessary demonstration of escalation dominance. Jerusalem would then need to raise even further the capability threshold of its relevant conventional forces. A more persuasive Israeli conventional deterrent, to the extent that it could prevent enemy-state conventional or biological attacks in the first place, would then be required to reduce Israel’s now-expanded risk of exposure to an outright nuclear war.
After Palestine, and without any reasonable doubt, the area’s correlation of forces would become markedly less favorable to Israel. Now, the only credible way for Israel to consistently deter large-scale conventional attacks would be to maintain visible and large-scale conventional force capabilities. Of course, enemy states contemplating first-strike attacks upon Israel, using chemical or biological weapons, would be apt to take most seriously Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Whether or not this Israeli nuclear deterrent had remained entirely or partially undisclosed could also affect Jerusalem’s deterrent credibility.
In sum, Israel still needs a sufficiently strong conventional capability to deter or possibly to pre-empt conventional attacks, enemy aggressions that could lead, via escalation, to unconventional war. Doubtlessly, Mr. Obama’s road map would only further impair Israel’s already minimal strategic depth, and, if duly recognized by enemy states, Israel’s associated capacity to wage conventional war. These key calculations should finally be understood in Washington, as well as in Jerusalem, not only for Israel’s sake, but also because a Palestinian state would quickly become receptive to assorted jihadist preparations for expanding anti-American terrorism.
Louis Rene Beres is professor of international law at Purdue University.