Can Israel’s Military Edge Be Sustained?

Aaron Menenberg

Aaron Menenberg

Executive Director, Public Interest Fellowship

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Aaron Menenberg ~

From the Blog

David Ben-Gurion famously said that in order to be a realist in Israel, you have to believe in miracles. Thus was born the “Qualitative Military Edge” strategy. Seven decades on, can it survive?

The core concept of Israel’s national security strategy is and has always been its Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Put simply, it means that Israel must build and maintain a military that is qualitatively better than any other in the region. Originally formulated by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, this long standing doctrine, grounded on the reality of Israel’s small size and embattled status in the Middle East, is now facing a grave challenge as the balance of power in the region tilts increasingly toward Iran.

As Israel emerged victorious from the 1948 War of Independence, Ben-Gurion grasped that because the Jewish state lacked the territorial depth required for its population to separate itself from an attacking enemy, it could not lose a war without losing its territory. Any enemy victory would mean the physical conquest of Israel. Thus, Israel required a QME in order to prevent the catastrophic loss of Israeli life and land.

America has recognized the existential importance of Israel’s QME since 1968, when U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson sold Israel F-4 Phantom fighter jets, one year after France—which had provided the backbone of Israel’s air force over the previous two decades—imposed an embargo on weapons sales to the Jewish state on the eve of the Six-Day War. But the U.S. also recognized the QME’s irreplaceable role in creating a balance of power in the region favorable to American interests. As a result, every president since Johnson has contributed to the maintenance of Israel’s QME in one form or another, and Congress has authorized the sale and supply of the military equipment and financing required to ensure that Israel’s needs are met.

Since 9/11, Congress has become especially aggressive in pushing the Executive Branch to guarantee Israel’s QME. In 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law House Resolution 7177, which defined the requirements for Israel to maintain its QME. This was a critical development in American policy toward Israel, because it set a high minimum standard for U.S. military support. H.R. 7177 stipulates that Israel’s QME requires the “ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors” while

Sustaining minimal damages and casualties, through the use of superior military means, possessed in sufficient quantity, including weapons, command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors.

America’s role in maintaining Israel’s QME is not just good for Israel. It benefits America greatly, because it guarantees Israel’s status as a “Strong Horse” in the region, keeping American influence at the forefront. The Strong Horse concept was explained by journalist Lee Smith in his book of the same name, in which he argued that the Middle East has historically been dominated by leaders and countries that catapult themselves into positions of regional influence through demonstrations of military superiority. These Strong Horse leaders maintain their positions of power until they are supplanted by a militarily superior rival.

Israel’s QME has confirmed it as a regional Strong Horse, and American support has enabled the U.S. to project power and influence via Israel’s military superiority in two significant ways: First, Arab states have been dissuaded from engaging in dangerous military adventurism that would force Israel and perhaps the United States to intervene in order to keep Israel and America’s allies safe. (This, of course, required active American leadership, which has unfortunately been receding in recent years. Nevertheless, until American involvement began declining, the robust and active U.S.-Israel alliance limited what countries like Syria and actors like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps could do.)

Second, Israel has been able to do some of America’s bidding. One example of this is Israel’s ongoing contribution to protecting the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from both ISIS and Iranian interference, significantly boosting America’s need for stability and Western-allied leadership in Jordan by setting up a joint command and control center in Jordan from which its domestic and international anti-ISIS operations are run, as well as supplying Jordan with Israeli combat helicopters and its most advanced unmanned aerial vehicles.

But the Middle East is an ever-changing region, and lately the change has been for the worse. As a result of this, Israel’s military edge is being dangerously eroded at the just the time that Iran’s burgeoning QME is quickly closing the gap.

On the back of a steady decline of American military and diplomatic involvement in the region since Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008, the latest setback to peace and prosperity is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran. The JCPOA has been sold as a way to prevent Iran from further developing its nuclear weapons for the duration of the agreement. Implicit in this agreement, but not sufficiently acknowledged, is that by seeking to slow Iran’s progress, it provides an internationally-approved pathway for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon with zero breakout time in—according to the President of the United States, who fully endorses the deal—a minimum of thirteen years.

Many supporters of the JCPOA, including the Obama administration, claim that the agreement strengthens the international non-proliferation regime. But this is belied by the administration’s own efforts to sell the deal to Israel and the Sunni Gulf states by offering them arms packages to offset the increased security threat they face from an empowered Iran. As the Sunni states beef up their conventional forces, they are also looking to develop their own nuclear programs to protect themselves from a nuclear Iran. As a result, what was supposed to be a non-proliferation effort is creating a new arms race across a region that is already among the most militarized in the world.

Recognizing that the JCPOA provides an internationally blessed route to an Iranian nuclear weapon, several Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have begun putting together the initial pieces of their own nuclear programs, and suppliers like South Korea and Russia have not been shy about aiding them. Russia, of course, is aiding Iran at the same time, both with its nuclear program and its backing for the Assad regime in Syria. The Sunni states are moving towards nuclear programs because America’s stark retreat from the region, its acquiescence to Russia’s aggressive partnership with Iran, and its formal endorsement through the JCPOA of Iran’s nuclear program is making Iran the region’s next Strong Horse. Israel’s QME, which until quite recently helped stabilize the region and ensure American influence, is perhaps just a decade from being surpassed by Iran.

The nuclear deal with Iran is a major threat to Israel’s qualitative military edge.

For Israel, of course, this is a major threat. Iran has almost ten times Israel’s population and its influence is growing throughout the region. If Iran achieves nuclear capability, it would challenge Israel’s status as the region’s most dominant military power, and perhaps even supplant it. Gone would be Israel’s unquestioned QME, the favorable balance of power would be reversed, and American influence, already on a steep decline over the last decade, would precipitously fall.

This devastating outcome can be avoided by maintaining Israel’s QME, and American influence and power, as defenses against a rising Iran. This will be a difficult task. Iran’s nuclear weapons program makes Israel’s quest to maintain a qualitatively superior program extremely difficult, if not impossible. Further, the terms of the JCPOA, such as America’s responsibility to help Iran protect its nuclear program from foreign attack, make America’s ability to help Israel achieve a QME in the post-JCPOA world very challenging as well.

To understand why this is the case, a closer look at H.R. 7177 is required. For example, the resolution states that Israel must have “the ability to counter and defeat any credible military threat from any individual or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors.” That means that, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Israel must be able to counter and defeat a nuclear attack from Iran. At the same time, it must be able to counter and defeat simultaneous missile attacks from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, not to mention any ground attacks emanating from Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. In addition, Israel must be able to sustain “minimal damages and casualties.” And it has to achieve all of this “through the use of superior military means.” It does not take a military expert to understand just how difficult—perhaps impossible—this objective is to achieve against a nuclear-armed Iran.

This is because, on a fundamental level, an Iranian nuclear weapon hollows out the purpose of Israel’s QME, which is to negate Israel’s lack of strategic depth. In a conventional war, Israel has a strong enough military and defense system in place to keep an enemy from getting inside Israel’s territory and exploiting that lack of depth. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, overcomes Israel’s QME by placing all of Israel’s territory under existential threat. The QME is supposed to render Israel’s lack of territorial depth irrelevant, but Iran’s nuclear weapons program makes it relevant again by creating the ability to instantly target Israel’s entire population with—given its dense concentration within a compact territory—quite devastating results.

F-16s fly over Tel Aviv as part of the country’s 63rd Independence Day celebrations. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Wikimedia

F-16s fly over Tel Aviv as part of the country’s 63rd Independence Day celebrations. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Wikimedia

Simply put, Israel cannot adequately defend itself against a nuclear-armed Iran without significant changes to its military capabilities. And making these changes is what is required of the U.S. Government according to H.R. 7177.

For America to guarantee Israel’s QME in the JCPOA era and meet the definition of QME it made law in 2008, the Obama administration and Congress need to be honest about what is needed. This, in turn, requires an honest acknowledgment of the fact that authorizing further conventional military aid to Israel is insufficient to neutralize a nuclear attack. As a result, America may well need to help Israel create a nuclear program that is bigger, better, and stronger than Iran’s, and affords it second strike capability.

This is a profoundly frightening realization, because it requires accepting the seemingly contradictory conclusion that, under the JCPOA, nuclear proliferation is required to maintain a chance of peace. Herman Kahn, founder of the Hudson Institute and one of the world’s preeminent nuclear deterrence theorists, argued that once a single state goes nuclear, prioritizing non-proliferation become more dangerous than achieving a strategic balance of nuclear deterrence between multiple states. The key is to limit proliferation to states that will act responsibly. Since the JCPOA means the world has now accepted nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, the right state must have nuclear weapons to deter Iran. In this scenario, Israel is clearly the most suitable state to wield a deterrent nuclear program.

One measure of this is Israel’s responsibility as a nuclear power. It has been credibly rumored to possess nuclear weapons for decades. Yet it has never used them, even in such desperate situations as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Indeed, Israel has studiously adhered to its stated policy that it will not be the first state to “introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” The region has been able to to operate effectively as a nuclear-free zone, which means that there has been no need for a strategic balance of nuclear deterrence between multiple states. But nuclear proliferation in the Middle East has now become an issue because of the serious threat of Iranian and Arab nuclear power, not Israel’s ambiguous nuclear capabilities.

A scientist enters the reactor hall of the nuclear facility in Nahal Sorek. Unlike the nuclear reactor at Dimona, the reactor at Nahal Sorek is inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency twice a year. Photo: Yaakov Naumi / Flash90

A scientist enters the reactor hall of the nuclear facility in Nahal Sorek. Unlike the nuclear reactor at Dimona, the reactor at Nahal Sorek is inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency twice a year. Photo: Yaakov Naumi / Flash90

If arming Israel with nuclear weapons seems too strong a reaction to the JCPOA, then the reason it must be seriously considered—Iran’s nuclear program—must be eliminated. If Iran’s nuclear program can be dismantled before the Tehran regime achieves a nuclear weapon, than the radical enhancement of Israel’s nuclear deterrent by the U.S. need not be pursued. This would be a much more desirable outcome than one that produces (at least) two nuclear-armed countries in the Middle East. Unfortunately, no international leaders have shown the appetite or courage to go after Iran’s nuclear program, because they understand Iran will fight such an effort every step of the way. It is a sad irony that the present fear of conflict, along with the belief that the feeble provisions of the JCPOA will prevent Iran from weaponizing, has increased the odds of a future conflict that would be far more horrific. Yet that risk must be accepted if we are to reduce the chances of nuclear war, which means moving to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and creating a capable Israeli nuclear deterrent as a Plan B.

Thus, Congress and the administration must look seriously and honestly at the options we have if we are to continue our role as the predominant influencer in the Middle East: Outfit Israel with a superior nuclear program, or eliminate Iran’s nuclear program altogether. This effort naturally must include Israel, which may not want to draw any more attention to a nuclear program it may or may not have given its deliberate policy of ambiguity on the subject. As the discussion takes place, all parties involved must also look for other ways to enhance Israel’s capabilities so as to compensate for its lack of territorial depth in the face of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The challenge will be finding the means to allow Israelis to remain in Israel while under nuclear attack from Iran or its proxies. Some of these will be military, but they must also be more than that. They must be diplomatic, they must be subversive, and they must be economic, because there is no military means of keeping Israelis safe in an attack involving a nuclear-armed Iran whether Iran uses the bomb or not.

And so we come full circle to the reality that the JCPOA is not enough to keep the region safe from Iran. In order to limit nuclear proliferation and keep poisonous Iranian influence to a minimum, America, Israel, and their allies need a robust plan to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is eliminated, and the courage to see it through. Talking about ensuring that Israel can neutralize a nuclear-armed Iran, and moving towards that reality in order to create a credible deterrent, is a start, but demonstrative action towards the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program will be required if we are to achieve a stable Middle East free of radical rulers wielding nuclear weapons. The future of Israel, and the future of American regional influence, depends on ensuring that Israel’s QME is maintained and succeeding in eliminating Iran’s nuclear program.

Failure to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities means the price will be much higher for the people of the Middle East, including Iranian citizens who suffer severe oppression at the hands of a regime that will only get stronger under the JCPOA. Even without a nuclear weapon, the death and destruction that Iran has wreaked on the region has been incredible: Hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. There is no forgiving that, and there ought to be no accommodating it either.

Banner Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Wikimedia