On October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur war began with a surprise attack against Israel by Egypt and Syria. After initial successes, the Arab armies were repulsed; two weeks later, Israeli forces had moved deep into Arab territory. The United Nations succeeded in arranging for a cease-fire, which managed to hold on the Syrian front but fell apart in Egypt, where Israeli forces had trapped the Egyptian Third Army and fighting continued. The Third Army was in danger of being destroyed, which would have been a great disaster for Egypt, a disaster that neither the United States or the Soviet Union welcomed, The United States believed that such an outcome would work against establishing a durable peace in the Middle East and would weaken the US position in that region. The Soviets didn't want an Egyptian defeat because they were on the Arab side and had armed and trained the Egyptian and Syrian forces.
Having a common objective for a change, the US and Soviet governments got together and agreed to seek an enforcement of the fractured cease-fire. The United States placed great pressure on Israel to forgo the destruction of the encircled Egyptian forces, but these efforts to stop the fighting failed. As a consequence, the Soviets, feeling that they had been betrayed by the United States, began to prepare for military intervention.
The United States reacted by placing its military forces on a higher level of alert. Several dozen B-52 strategic nuclear bombers were shifted from their bases in Guam to the United States. A super-carrier, the John F. Kennedy, was ordered to the Mediterranean, The 32nd Airborne Division was readied for dispatch. All of this was intended to show that the United States was readying itself for a possible confrontation with the Soviets, a confrontation holding the risk of nuclear war.
Finally, the Israelis pulled away from the fighting, and the war ended. But there had occurred a hair-raising crisis that held the threat of escalating to Armageddon for all parties involved. Whether the US or the Soviet government might have backed down had Israel refused to stop the war, we'll never know.
One thing is clear, however. Had the United States, to save Israel, joined in an escalatory process to the top rung of the ladder—to thermonuclear war with the USSR—this would have been insane: America would have succeeded in committing suicide; Israel would have perished under Soviet nuclear attack; and to one extent or another, the world would have suffered from the long-term effects of general nuclear war. Speaking as an American, this is one risk that the government of my country, the United States, should never again take on behalf of Israel (or any other ally, for that matter).
Unfortunately, current US policy toward Israel does not preclude a similar crisis from happening again. This strongly suggests that if the US government is to continue providing Israel with military assistance—and political realities are that it is likely to do so—it should seek to guarantee that a Middle East crisis involving the threat of Soviet intervention can never again arise. This can be accomplished by insisting that Israel change its military posture to achieve a self-defense-oriented capability, and then by assisting in this change. And what I mean by self-defense is a capability where the strategy for Israel's ground forces is solely to make it infeasible for Arab ground forces to invade Israeli territory and for Israel to invade the territory of its Arab neighbors.
I will advance and explain here a defensive scheme for achieving this capability. It does not involve nuclear weapons. Moreover, it can be accomplished in a highly moral fashion, in that the scheme is purely one of self-defense that precludes the ravagings of conventional wars, which have ravaged the Middle East time and time again.
It is not the United States alone, in an effort to prevent a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, that has an interest in Israel's self-defensive capability. Israel itself, of course, has an acute stake in the matter. In the second half of this century Israel has been in more wars than any other country and presently seems heading toward the next one. As is always the case when a liberal democratic country goes to war, the cost to Israel has been high and little has been accomplished by way of preventing future conflicts.
To be sure, there has been no way for the Israelis to avoid these costs when their very existence has been threatened by an Arab determination to bring about their demise. To defend against this threat they have gone to war time after time, employing a highly offensive military strategy. Time after time, they have sent armored columns deep into Arab countries, sometimes occupying or annexing conquered territory, which has only served to sharpen tensions and bring about conditions for another war.
Throughout these years of Mideast turmoil, the United States has sought to bring peace to the area via diplomacy and by selling and giving arms. Our diplomacy, obviously, has been far from successful. The arms we have provided, mainly to Israel, have been used to bring about tragic levels of death and destruction, and all signs point to our having to supply more and more weapons in a futile quest to bring about a "stable" balance of power, in an area that is perhaps the most unstable on earth.
The tolerance of the American people for this dismal pattern may be nearing an end. President Reagan has declared an "ironclad" commitment to Israel's security, but the US record for maintaining its security commitments has not been ironclad—nor should it have been. When a nation perceives that its own security is best served by reducing or withdrawing commitments to others' security, it should do precisely that. If Mideast countries continue with their past behavior, the only prudent course for the United States may be to pull out of a hopeless morass that imperils its own security.
If the Soviets intrude again in an Arab-Israeli war, this time with vastly improved nuclear capabilities to back up their actions, the survival of the United States would be at stake. Clearly this is a situation where it would be irrational—indeed, intolerable—for us to remain committed to Israel. Clearly, the most responsible thing the United States can do, to ensure its own security, is to make drastic changes in its military assistance to Israel (and to other Mideast countries as well) to prevent such a situation from ever arising. Otherwise, based on the wretched history of this turbulent arena, there is every reason to expect that one of these days a nuclear showdown will arise.
A solution to the Palestinian problem and Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories has supposedly been at the heart of gaining peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. These objectives constituted the basis of President Reagan's Mideast proposal of September 1, 1982. "Self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan offers the best chance for a durable, just and lasting peace," said Reagan at the time. Reagan's proposal garnered precious little support from either side, especially on the Israeli side, and at present has precious little chance of succeeding.
Six years earlier, Israel, then under a Labor government, had contemplated something similar in the form of the Allon Plan, proposed by Yigal Allon, at that time Israel's deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. Under the Allon Plan, the West Bank would be incorporated into a single Jordanian-Palestinian state, and Israel would in turn give up the bulk of the occupied areas. In withdrawing its forces from the occupied areas, Israel would achieve agreement for their effective demilitarization. However, to ensure its security, Israel would hold on to a belt of land at the West Bank-Jordanian border, a strip along the Golan Heights, and a belt in the Sinai Peninsula somewhat west of the 1949 Armistice Line; the purpose would be to establish a military buffer zone—Allon referred to it as a strategic defense zone—against possible attack by its Arab neighbors to the east and west.
In the framework of such an agreement, for geographical reasons, the major threat to Israeli security would come from the east, where, as Allon explained,
the entire width of the coastal plain varies between 10 and 15 miles, where the main centers of Israel's population, including Tel Aviv and its suburbs, are situated, and where the situation of Jerusalem is especially perilous. Within these lines a single successful first strike by the Arab armies would be sufficient to dissect Israel at more than one point, to sever its essential living arteries, and to confront it with dangers that no other state would be prepared to face. The purpose of defensible borders is thus to correct this weakness.
Since the Allon Plan was advanced, a number of fundamental changes have taken place.
In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that eliminated the possibility of establishing a buffer zone in Egyptian territory. Moreover, over the last year or so, because of the Lebanese war, Egypt has had increasingly strained relations with Israel and has been moving back into the Arab camp. Combining these two factors, the potential threat to Israel from the west has increased significantly since Allon made his proposal in 1976.
The Lebanese war itself and the mayhem resulting from it has also affected the Allon Plan. Syria has consolidated its position in Lebanon and increased its military presence there. Israel now occupies southern Lebanon and seems disposed to stay there for the indefinite future, and this will result in continued political tensions.
Finally, there is the rapidly increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, promising to make the occupation permanent. Should this happen, the Palestinian question will remain as a primary menace to Mideast peace. It also will seal the coffin on Reagan's peace proposal.
Summing up the principal virtue of his plan, Yigal Allon stated, "Good fences make good neighbors." It is conceivable, although most doubtful, that with the Allon Plan in force, the Arab states might become good enough neighbors to accept lasting peace with Israel. Whatever these prospects may be, however, will depend on how good a fence Israel might construct and, equally important, how good the Arabs consider it. In this regard, one can only observe that no system of military defenses in history has ever succeeded in deterring aggression by a determined (or impassioned) enemy.
When the fundamental causes of war remain, sooner or later, regardless of the aggressor's perception of the military balance, war breaks out. And even if the aggressor had no intention, at some point in time, of attacking, the defender might perceive otherwise and launch a preemptive attack or might attack in retribution for some hostile act by the other side. In large measure, these situations have produced a number of Arab-Israeli conflicts—and promise to produce still more.
There is, however, a defensive formula that may render meaningless a would-be aggressor's calculation of the possibilities for success, regardless of how determined, or impassioned, he may be. What I am suggesting is the construction of a border barrier whose most effective component is an extremely intense field of nuclear radiation (produced by the operation of underground nuclear reactors), sharply confined to the barrier zone, which practically guarantees the death of anyone attempting to breach the barrier. Establishing such a "nuclear wall" at the borders of a threatened country can make virtually impossible any successful penetration by ground forces—as well as a preemptive ground attack by the threatened country.
In the late 1950s, when Israel decided to embark on its nuclear-weapons program, Shimon Peres (then a ranking official in Ben Gurion's administration and today the head of the Labor Party) expressed his views on the potential of that program:
Nuclear development and science could bring peace. Peace will not come from the efforts of foreign countries, nor will it grow on Middle Eastern soil. Israel can bring peace close to it if it will persuade the Arabs that with the help of science we can bring an end to the chance that they can defeat us.
Peres almost certainly had nuclear explosives in mind, and not the existing nuclear-fission reactor technology that was capable of providing the radiation field required for a nuclear wall around Israel. (Today, a quarter century later, modern reactor technology can accomplish this with greatly improved efficiency.)
Briefly, this is how such a barrier scheme would work:
During peacetime, the reactors (employed underground, for protection and safety) are operated on a continual basis, as are our power reactors. The neutrons produced by the fission reactions escape into a solution containing an element that, upon absorbing the neutrons, becomes highly radioactive and emits gamma rays (very high energy X-rays) at extremely high intensity. The radioactive solution is then passed into a series of pipes running along the barrier length in conjunction with conventional obstacle components—mines, Dragon's Teeth, tank traps, barbed wire, etc. To the rear of the pipes and obstacle belts is a system of conventional defensive fortifications. (The obstacles, the firepower from the fortifications, and tactical air power all serve to impede the rate of advance of the attacker, increasing the attacker's exposure to the gamma radiation. Vice versa, by quickly incapacitating the attacker, the radiation serves to make it difficult, or even impossible, for the attacker to remove the obstacles and assault the fortifications.) The width of the entire defensive system need be no more than a few miles.
The gamma ray field in the immediate vicinity of the obstacle zone readily can be sufficiently intense that several minutes' exposure will produce incapacitation and ultimately death. However, at a distance of, say, 1,000 yards from the pipes, the radiation intensity is so reduced that people are perfectly safe. In fact, a person could stand all day at this distance without putting himself in jeopardy.
In a nutshell, this is the basic idea of a radiation barrier, which, I maintain, holds out the possibility of peace for the Middle East. A number of aspects of this scheme deserve more discussion. The moral aspects are probably of most concern to many people who are repelled by the idea of using radiation for military purposes. (Of course, none of us is horror-struck over using the identical kind of radiation for medical purposes; yet in effect the gamma rays at issue here can work to save far more lives than medical X-rays by reducing the chance of war.)
Regarding the morality (or immorality) of such defensive use of nuclear radiation, one should keep in mind that the gamma rays themselves can, of course, have no intentions; nor is there necessarily any intent by those who produce them to kill anyone. The intent to kill has to lie with the aggressor—to kill himself. This contrasts sharply with the employment of conventional weapons, where there is every intent to kill the enemy. The basic purpose of the radiation is to deter the would-be aggressor from attacking; that is, to prevent war.
A valid analogy here is the use of an electric fence to keep intruders from some valuable or potentially dangerous facility. The electricity is neutral, and the facility management holds no particular wish to see the intruder (a fellow human being) killed and would just as soon have him not even try to scale or cut through the fence.
As for the effects of gamma rays on anyone who tries to pass through the radiation field, the experience to date (arising mainly from radiation accidents) gives no indication that the degree of suffering would be greater than that from exposure to lethal conventional weapons. In fact, there is no indication that the suffering would even be as great as that from certain conventional weapons that are normally used and are held to be perfectly acceptable for helping a country defend itself against aggression. Moreover, continuing with this grisly business of human victims of war, the suffering of an aggressor who senselessly persists in trying to penetrate a radiation barrier will not endure for very long; he will receive a dose of gamma rays sufficiently high to kill him within less than an hour.
To be sure, the distress resulting from massive radiation exposure would be severe. However, the symptoms are not different from what human beings have experienced from disease and pestilence over the centuries, including such effects as vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, chills, and fever. But the suffering of the radiation-barrier victim will be over much more quickly than that of a disease or pestilence victim.
And what about the agonies human beings have endured over the centuries as they perished at the hands of defending forces using conventional weapons, which today are defined by Western nations and most religions as the only moral means of combat? Was death caused by flaming oil poured over the parapets in ancient times or by napalm in modern times less agonizing than from massive exposure to gamma radiation? What judgment does one pass on the morality of ancient barbed arrows or modern fragmentation bombs, designed to rend human flesh, when comparing their effects with those of gamma rays? How does one assess the relative horrors of dying by mutilation from an exploded mine or from being irradiated by gamma rays?
What is of relevance here is that there is no objective basis on which to single out gamma radiation effects as an especially repugnant means of defending a nation's territory and people against aggression.
What about the moral objections that have been made against nuclear weapons? These objections have been founded on three premises: (1) they are deliverable explosives that can be used to inflict death and destruction on an enormously greater scale than conventional weapons; (2) they represent a class of weapons that, with their radiation, are qualitatively different from conventional weapons, primarily because of long-term radioactive fallout; and (3) the introduction of those weapons into warfare, however limited, poses the unacceptable risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war. While the nuclear-barrier scheme advanced here has not been a subject of these moral deliberations, the scheme can be evaluated in their light.
To begin with, it is by no means clear that an immovable pipe filled with radioactivity can even be classified as a weapon. Webster's defines a weapon, in the military sense, as "an instrument of offensive or defensive combat: something to fight with." By this definition, a radiation barrier, like a barbed-wire fence or an electric fence designed to keep intruders out, cannot be considered a weapon. It is not an instrument of combat; for combat, again according to Webster's, is "active fighting in a war." A fixed pipe is not active, it is passive; it stays put in the defender's territory and is designed to save lives by deterring attack and, if that fails, preventing the attack from succeeding.
Next, the source of the nuclear energy in a radiation barrier does not explode; it is a nuclear reactor that stays intact while generating neutrons (it could be used to generate electricity, as well) to produce radioactivity. The reactor is a large, extremely heavy, buried object that cannot be "delivered" to inflict death and destruction on any scale whatsoever, let alone on an enormously greater scale than conventional weapons. It is no more a weapon than the pipes.
Although a nuclear barrier achieves its effectiveness from radioactivity, the radioactivity is not deposited over huge areas, nor does it persist for years and decades, as does the fallout from nuclear explosives. Rather, it is deposited in a pipe perhaps an inch or so in diameter; its radiation effects are constrained strictly to the zone of military application; and its persistence is but a tiny fraction of that from fallout. Unlike the dreaded huge-area, long-term fallout associated with nuclear explosives, it cannot affect noncombatants and society itself on a massive scale.
Finally, there are the fears that even the most limited use of nuclear weapons will lead to all-out nuclear war. But a radiation barrier is qualitatively different from high-explosives. It is difficult to see how operating nuclear reactors underground and filling pipes with radioactivity—all this taking place on one's own sovereign territory during peacetime—poses the threat of the world blowing itself up with hydrogen bombs. One must conclude that the defensive strategy proposed here would exploit nuclear technology without the risks usually ascribed to nuclear weapons.
Could nuclear arms controllers object to this scheme? No nuclear arms control agreement to date has involved limits that would inhibit the development of a radiation barrier. In recent years, the United States, working with the Soviet Union and other nations at the Geneva Conference, has been attempting to negotiate a treaty barring the employment of radiological weapons, that is, weapons utilizing radioactive materials. But an examination of the US position on a possible radiological treaty shows that, as for all other nuclear arms control treaties, a nuclear radiation barrier has never been taken into consideration.
In entering into these treaty negotiations, the United States made it plain that it held those weapons to be in the general category of weapons of "mass destruction," as the term was defined by the United Nations in 1948:
Weapons of mass destruction should be defined to include atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.
The radiation barrier involves a pipe filled with radioactivity of controlled duration, installed on friendly soil for the purpose of self-defense, and whose radiation effects are constrained to a very narrow strip of unpopulated territory. Clearly, this cannot be called a weapon of mass destruction, and a radiation barrier could be constructed without any violation of existing or contemplated nuclear arms control treaties.
Another possible objection to the defensive scheme proposed here involves the cost. But the key question is, compared to what?
Are we to compare the cost of a nuclear barrier and the cost of Israel fighting still another ground war? If indeed a nuclear barrier can deter aggression, by both sides, then the comparison is between the cost of peace and the cost of war if Israel is to continue with its war-fighting ways.
Israel may go on winning wars, but each war exacts a price, a huge price for so tiny a nation. Its generals may continue to have winning strategies, but every military victory will have its economic and political losses that are detrimental to Israel's well-being. Israel cannot afford to lose a war, but a fair question to ask is, How much longer can it afford to go on winning?
All wars fought by large modern armies cost dearly, as Israel has come to know. Israel's bloodiest war, the Yom Kippur war in 1973, exacted a staggering price in human casualties and expenditure of resources for such a small nation. Some 2,500 lives were lost (the equivalent of about 150,000 US lives, were the United States to fight a war at this casualty level), and the war cost an estimated $10 billion (approximately that year's gross national product). Even the Lebanese war, hardly of comparable ferocity and carnage to previous wars, has been estimated to have cost several billion dollars so far. What the next war might cost—if Israel is not successful in making peace with its neighbors, and even then, peace treaties in an area continually wracked by turmoil may not be worth the paper they are written on—who is to say? But considering the rate at which the Arab countries are arming and rearming themselves, as well as Israel's expanding defenses, another war could be appallingly expensive.
If the cost of a barrier is to be compared to the cost of Israeli expenditures for conventional defense to avoid war (which has not happened so far), it is then peace versus peace. And for Israel, the price of peace, when the nation has been fortunate enough to enjoy it, has been high—very high—indeed.
Israel is the world's most heavily armed nation, spending more defense money per capita than any other country in the world. If it is not at war, in recent years about one-sixth of its gross national product has been going into the defense budget, which is close to a third of the national budget. (When it goes to war, these fractions rise sharply.) These vast defense expenditures have greatly affected Israel's economic condition and placed severe burdens on the taxpayer. For more than a decade, inflation has been running at an annual rate of well over 100 percent.
Striving to achieve peace through strength may have given Israel physical security so far, however staggering the cost; but it hasn't succeeded in keeping the peace, and it certainly hasn't succeeded in providing peace of mind to the embattled Israeli citizenry. Founded as "a light unto the nations" with proclamations of peaceful intentions and a national vision of a just, democratic society, Israel has become increasingly chauvinistic and its leaders increasingly bellicose in stressing the need for military strength and force. As a consequence, Israeli society has become divided as citizens seek to reconcile peaceful aims with military necessities and its own self-image has deteriorated. Its image before much of the free world has also deteriorated, as debate has increased over whether Israel is truly interested in resolving Middle East problems, especially the Palestinian issue, which all Western countries wish to see resolved.
In this context, the cost of a nuclear wall against war, unless it is beyond economic reach, is irrelevant; for if such a barrier could truly prevent ground invasion, it would dramatically alter Israel's situation. As Yigal Allon, in explaining his proposal for a military buffer zone, declared:
At least as far as conventional wars are concerned, the following basic truth remains: without an attack by ground forces that physically overrun the country involved, no war can be decisive. This is all the more so in the Middle East where the Arab side is no less vulnerable to rocket and aerial bombardment than Israel, a factor that can greatly minimize the use of this kind of weaponry, and will leave to the ground forces the role of really deciding the issue.
This importance of security against ground invasion is what makes the cost of a nuclear barrier almost a minor consideration.
However, for those curious to know what the barrier construction cost might be, I have estimated that installing the reactors, obstacle components, and defense fortifications would cost roughly several billion dollars—not very much compared to an Israeli military budget that has been running at some $5 to $10 billion a year, depending on whether Israel is fighting a war or undergoing a massive force modernization to prepare for the next one. Moreover, by in effect substituting gamma rays for bullets, substantially fewer personnel would be required for a barrier-oriented force than for Israel's current military forces, leading to substantially reduced operating costs.
One might fairly wonder about Israel establishing a peacetime wall of radioactivity at the border of an Arab nation, Egypt, with which it has peaceful relations. Would this not cut off free surface passage into each other's countries and thus violate traditional diplomatic codes of peaceful behavior? Yes, it would, were the radioactivity to be continuous along the border. But during peacetime it would not be necessary to fill the pipes that cross roads leading into friendly countries. Were these countries to become unfriendly once again and threaten to launch attacks against Israel's borders, the pipes could be quickly filled to close the peacetime radioactivity gaps.
Besides precluding an armored invasion, the barrier would also defend Israel against the possibility of terrorists from neighboring states slipping across the borders to attack settlements, ambush school buses, and commit other atrocities of the kind that have gone on in the past. These acts of terrorism-which over the years have provoked Israel into retaliatory bombing raids, airborne commando attacks, and armed incursions into Arab territory, resulting in extensive casualties to civilians—effectively would come to an end.
On the other hand, whereas a radiation barrier may deter terrorists from crossing over borders, it cannot prevent them from launching rockets over borders. Perhaps the best that can be said, sadly so, is that during the many years that such attacks have gone on, the number of Israeli deaths that have resulted have been practically negligible, on the order of a few hundred. Whereas it would be highly inappropriate for an outsider to pass judgment on what Israel's tolerance for such attacks should be if they are resumed at some future date, what can be said is that with a two-way restraining barrier in place, at least a repetition of the Lebanese invasion can be avoided. Israel might elect to respond to terrorist rockets by conducting bombing and commando raids in hopes of deterring further such attacks, but the civilian damage would be far less than from a full-scale invasion.
Even were Israel to secure its borders with a nuclear barrier, this would not, of course, secure its territory and people against Arab air attack. Israel would have to maintain air defenses and a retaliatory air-strike capability to deter such attack. And as Allon explained, the Arabs and Israelis are equally vulnerable to air attack, so that one side's air power serves as a counter to the other side's use of its air power.
Finally, there is the matter of Israel's unacknowledged stockpile of nuclear weapons and what role these weapons might play in a barrier-oriented defensive scheme. Obviously, were the barrier to succeed in preventing Arab ground forces from overrunning Israel, Israel would never be in a position to use nuclear weapons as an act of revenge in a hopeless situation. Its nuclear weapons would thus be relegated to a strictly deterrent role, against possible Arab use of nuclear weapons against Israel.
The Yom Kippur war and the peril it posed to American security occurred some 10 years ago. At that time, the United States probably held a significant edge in theater nuclear firepower that could be applied to the region, and a state of parity was assumed to exist between US and Soviet strategic nuclear forces. This is not to say that it would have made sense for the United States to attempt to exploit a perceived advantage in local nuclear capabilities by initiating the use of nuclear weapons, had a military confrontation with the Soviets taken place. Rather, it is to say that the Soviets, ostensibly having an inferior theater nuclear capability, might have refrained from nuclear use and sought to resolve the conflict by conventional warfare. But this is speculation on what might have happened a decade back. Today, a drastically different nuclear balance exists.
Since 1973, US theater nuclear capabilities relevant to another Israeli-Arab war have not changed in any appreciable way. On the other hand, Soviet capabilities have increased hugely, posing a military threat of a far greater magnitude than was the case a decade back.
Soviet naval nuclear capabilities in the Mediterranean have expanded substantially. Based in the Soviet Union are increasing numbers, already in the many hundreds, of modern supersonic Backfire nuclear bombers and SS-20 ballistic nuclear missiles that have full coverage over the entire Middle East and Mediterranean areas. In the strategic nuclear area, too, the Soviet Union has forged ahead during the last 10 years. Under these conditions, for the United States to risk nuclear war by risking a confrontation with the Soviets in the Middle East would defy reason.
This unhappy fact of life, if there is to be any sanity on the part of my country, excludes the possibility of US military intervention in the event of another Mideast war. Should Israel once again put itself in a position where its military forces threaten the integrity of an Arab country and should the USSR threaten to come to the aid of that country, Israel would have to be on its own. Considering the overwhelming military force the Soviets could bring to bear, this would place Israel in an untenable position whether or not it used nuclear weapons. The real threat to Israel in the future, if it continues with its past military doctrine, will thus be the Soviet Union, not the Arab nations, however powerfully they may arm themselves with conventional weapons. And this compels Israel to change its doctrine in favor of a guaranteed defense of its borders to ensure that they will never be placed in a position that brings the Soviets into an Arab-Israeli war.
Even short of the threat of Soviet intervention, however, there are compelling reasons for Israel to change its military posture. In his speech of September 1, 1982, proposing an Arab-Israeli peace, President Reagan pleaded for compromise in the negotiations over Palestinian autonomy and reaffirmed (as all US presidents have felt compelled to do) the US-Israeli defense alliance. The president was undoubtedly sincere in his promise. In the mid-1960s, America's commitment to the security of South Vietnam seemed ironclad, too. When the hard facts of life became apparent, American popular support for South Vietnam evaporated; Congress got the message; and it was decided that US security interests, which were being badly eroded by the war, meant more than those of an ally it had pledged to protect.
Should a time come when the American people and the Congress decide that Israel is more a liability than an asset—and there are good reasons to believe that it may—unless Israel has prepared for it by adopting a new defense posture, its future may be about as secure as that of South Vietnam, which fell to the Communists a few years after the withdrawal of US support. This suggests, even demands, that Israel seek to come to terms with the United States by which, with US assistance, a new Israeli military posture can be achieved that effectively rules out ground war as a solution to Mideast political problems and that offers a realistic hope for ameliorating, or even solving, the foremost political problem: the Palestinian issue.
When proclaiming his peace plan, President Reagan left no doubt about his dedication to the establishment of Palestinian autonomy. "Self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan," he said, would be
fully consistent with Israels security requirements and the aspirations of the Palestinians…
These then are the principles upon which American policy will be based. I have made a personal commitment to see…that they will come to be seen by all reasonable, compassionate people as fair, achievable, and in the interests of all who wish to see peace in the Middle East.
Since then, however, there has been a widening gulf between the Reagan proposal and the political realities of the Mideast, and there has been no concrete progress toward implementing the proposal. Israel has gone on mainly behaving like Israel, and the same has held true for the Arabs. This has been a major source of frustration to the United States, with all signs pointing to a worsening of the situation. But there have been no signs of a US disposition to pull away from Reagan's proposal.
As a result, an impasse between America and Israel may persist, having the most damaging of consequences for Israel. To prevent this from happening, Israel might wish to pay heed to President Reagan's apparent willingness to accept "fair and reasonable compromises"—provided the United States will back up its high-sounding words of commitment to Israel's security with concrete deeds to assure its military self-defense.
These deeds, if they are to be at all realistic, for all the reasons I have sought to explain, will have to be nuclear deeds. For the purpose, if I may put it very bluntly, of enabling the United States to disengage itself militarily from the Middle East, Israel's defense will have to become, literally, its nuclear self-defense, via a wall against war.
I admit that the current political climate in Israel and in the United States does not bode well for this change. To expect the United States and Israel to agree to build a nuclear barrier that would protect Israeli borders that accommodate the terms of the Reagan peace proposal is about as realistic as expecting that the peace proposal will succeed in the absence of any drastically new steps. On the other hand, I have argued here that the national security policies of both countries have been anything but realistic in today's real world. Four decades into the Nuclear Age, the United States has refused to recognize the consequences of Soviet nuclear realities; and in the context of Soviet nuclear realities, Israel has refused to recognize the consequences of fighting more wars with its neighbors.
Were both countries to open their eyes to the dangers that lie ahead if they continue with their unrealistic policies, and were both to realize that sooner or later their separate national-security interests will work to dissolve their present mutual-security interests, perhaps a nuclear barrier arrangement could be worked out in the framework of the Reagan peace proposal. And needless to say, working out such an arrangement would involve the most painful concessions by both sides—to each other and to themselves.
For the United States to contemplate providing Israel (or any other country) with the means of using nuclear energy for military purposes would be tantamount to our discarding a deeply held ideology about the peaceful use of the atom and having to face up to the fears on which this ideology was based, however unrealistic the fears may have been. To hold ourselves responsible for opening the nuclear Pandora's Box, even though it never has been closed, is an agonizing thought in the minds of US policymakers and millions of Americans. All this may be based on a myth, but myths embedded in human minds become "realities" that are extremely difficult to dislodge.
In addition, the United States was mainly responsible for the birth of Israel and for its emergence as a progressive democracy in the midst of undemocratic Arab neighbors, and to contemplate its offspring going off on its own into an uncertain and dangerous future, would have to be a fearful prospect. This especially would be the case for a large portion of the American Jewish community, which has wielded great influence on the shaping of Israel and on the US attitude toward Israel. As for many a possessive parent, as difficult as it may be to deal with a grown child whose behavior the parent still wishes to control, it is even more difficult to accept the idea of the child behaving like an independent and equal adult.
As for Israel's required concessions, to contemplate relinquishing the West Bank to Palestinian autonomy and possibly giving up the settlements there would be, in a word, agonizing. To give up hopes of incorporating the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria would cause widespread anguish among Israelis having great historical affinity with these areas.
Knowing in their hearts that real peace with the Arab world is but a distant prospect at best, many Israelis would find it exceedingly painful to accept the Reagan peace proposal at face value. There would be a great reluctance to give up something so concrete as territory gained through the sacrifices of war for a promise so ephemeral as peace.
The concessions required of both sides to reach a compromise agreement would seem almost impossible of attainment, except for one factor: if an agreement, which ostensibly provides peace, is not reached, the alternative, in all probability, is more wars. On this basis, the agonizing concessions required to reach agreement based on a nuclear barrier must be weighed against the agonies of still more wars, one of which might prove to be Israel's undoing were the Soviet Union to intervene on behalf of the Arabs.
The price of peace, then, must be weighed against the price of war, and under the conditions of a nuclear barrier, the price of peace might be high indeed; for in many ways, Israel would remain a garrison state were Arab hostilities to persist despite the "peace," although it no longer would have to refrain in fear of Arab invasion. But behind its nuclear wall against war, Israel could at least have confidence in its ability to survive a future that otherwise would be perilous indeed.
Sam Cohen, a physicist, is the author of The Truth about the Neutron Bomb and numerous other books and articles on weapons systems. He contributed the chapter "Rethinking Strategic Defense" to the Reason Foundation book Defending a Free Society, and he is writing a book that includes a full technical-military discussion of the nuclear wall against war.