Rethinking Israeli Security

Your concept of "Israeli security" is probably wrong. If you're a part of the hoards of people protesting Israel's interception of the flotilla, you just don't get it: Israel will risk everything if it thinks its security is the least bit in jeopardy. If you're Israeli and believe in the need for overwhelming violence, your grasp of "security" is outdated, outmoded and unsustainable.

The willingness of Israel to use overwhelming force isn't best exemplified by the flotilla incident, but rather another development that got lost in the entrails of recent headlines. A summit at the UN--in which Israel did not take part--called for a meeting in the Middle East to craft steps towards a verifiable, legally-enforceable ban on weapons of mass destruction. Israel, which is all but known to have a sizable nuclear arsenal, most likely won't take part in that conference, either. Such reticence will be perilous.

Nuclear weapons can obliterate a nation. Today's nukes, after all, are not like the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as those 15 kiloton weapons were, as lasting as their damage has proven. Modern nuclear weapons are smaller, far more accurate and pack a much bigger punch: 15 thousand tons of TNT yield compared to many in the million ton range, devices that defy imagination in their destructive capacity.

There is perhaps no nation on Earth as acutely aware of the possibility of obliteration as Israel. Thousands of years of persecution, countless pogroms and a Holocaust, followed by the past 60 years of regional conflict with our immediate neighbors. For us, annihilation isn't an abstract concept. It's our history, and for those of us living in the State of Israel, the unthinkable is our daily reality. Ensuring security is the paramount concern. We risk that which we hold dear--good relations with our friends, economic prosperity for our children--when we feel our security is in peril. We take no chances; we cannot afford otherwise. A weapon of mass destruction in the port of Newark would wreak unimaginable horror on the US eastern seaboard. A weapon of mass destruction in the port of Jaffa would end Israel. The decision to develop nuclear weapons in Israel was not taken lightly. Indeed, the founding fathers debated it furiously, and the mission proceeded in secrecy from even the most powerful officials. We risked everything: we diverted our precious national resources--human and financial--from building our nascent State to advancing the nuclear program. Like the Biblical Samson, we were given one last chance at strength before facing the hungry lions. Like Samson, we were willing to take down our enemies if it meant avoiding death on their terms. Never again, went the tacit understanding, will we be led like lambs to the slaughter. It is ironic, then, that the weapon in which we invested so heavily, upon which we relied so entirely as our "ultimate insurance" is the source of our greatest insecurity today. Beyond Iran's potential weapons, the threat of "loose nukes"--weapons and materials stolen during the dissolution of the Soviet Union--is a grave problem that no nation can ignore. Still, two decades after the end of the Cold War and the risk of accidental launch of the dozens of thousands of nuclear weapons that remain in the arsenals of the US and Russia persists. Weapons are on high alert, fissile material remains inadequately protected and destroyed, and accidents or theft seems inevitable.

Israel's own nukes, like, ostensibly, all nuclear arsenals, exist as a deterrent; in other words, the threat of their use negates the actual need to use them, or so went the Cold War argument. Yet such a theory of deterrence requires predictability, rationality and cross-cultural transparency, with a zero margin of error, ingredients that do not and most likely will not exist in the Middle East. Therefore, as a Jew and as a staunch supporter of Israel, I support the abolition of nuclear weapons. I believe that the only way to address the threat posed to all of humanity by nuclear weapons is through their phased elimination, a collective process whereby the confidence built through taking each step enables us to take the next small step. Moreover, the verification system needed to make sure they do not get into the hands of sub-state actors will be obtained far more rapidly in a cooperative environment based on universal legal norms.

The abolition process does not require unilateral disarmament. The relations between states and peoples is marked by far too much distrust and hostility. Nuclear weapons, which can destroy civilization, are the most burlesque example of this dysfunctional behavior amongst peoples, our inability to solve conflicts diplomatically and our willingness to resort to violence. Nukes are an affront to humanity and, therefore, to God. However, the existing heightened level of distrust and hostility is such that abolishing nuclear weapons unilaterally could render us susceptible to attack against those who seek to perpetuate violence against us. Yet still, we know that security through violence is unsustainable. So long as nuclear weapons exist, we are threatened, and insecurity prevails. While we cannot be so bold as to predict what the process looks like each step of the way, we do know what the first steps entail: deeper reductions between the largest arsenals of the US and Russia, a global prohibition on nuclear testing and the production of fissile materials. Each step taken makes us safer, immediately. Moreover, as we collectively take each small step, our confidence in such cooperative action grows, making the next step easier to take. Engaging in an international process that builds confidence by Israel and in Israel to work cooperatively with other nations will help addressing other shared goals. Will it solve the issue of a Palestinian state? Of course not. Will the cooperation engendered through this process facilitate greater possibilities with our neighbors to do so? Inevitably. For starters, it could be a backdoor towards recognition, a necessary step within any peace process or regional security talks. Israelis' heightened sense of threats to insecurity will remain; 6,000 years is hard to shake off. The process towards abolition does not diminish our vigilance; the IDF remains as strong as ever, El Al continues with its groundbreaking security measures. For a nation that sometimes sees no plausible route towards peace with its neighbors, Israeli participation in the nuclear abolition process provides, quite possibly, the best path towards cooperation and engagement. Jewish ingenuity helped create the weapon that is now the greatest threat to our survival. We did not endure 6,000 years to be annihilated by our own invention. Let it also be Jewish brilliance, leadership, and morality that contribute towards the liberation of all humanity from the Damocles sword of nuclear weapons.