Commentary Magazine

Israel and the United States: From Dependence to Nuclear Weapons?


It is altogether likely that future historians will find in the Yom Kippur war, as most contemporary observers have already found, the great turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although affording no solutions to the seemingly intractable issues that have defined this conflict, the war clearly marked a radical change in the circumstances attending and conditioning it. The war, moreover, may be seen as the major precipitant that opened the way to implementing a new diplomatic design for the United States. If Mr. Kissinger did not anticipate the war, the record indicates that he quickly sensed the possibilities it held out for a new policy. The essential feature of this new policy was simplicity itself. It was not the Soviet Union but the United States that could satisfy Arab demands for the return of territories taken from them in 1967. This being so, it was the United States that could establish itself as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and thereby largely displace Russian influence, particularly in Egypt. Still, it was essential that Israel's adversaries first come to appreciate what the Soviet Union could not do for them, and this lesson they could only learn from experience. For Egypt, at least, the lesson seemed to have been largely learned in the years preceding the Yom Kippur war. The war provided the opportunity to confirm it while affording the occasion for a first demonstration of what the United States could do.

Given the principal goal of establishing the United States as mediator in the Middle Eastern conflict, the war had to be terminated in circumstances which would give the Secretary a viable bargaining position with both sides. At the same time, the structure of détente—Mr. Kissinger's principal monument—had somehow to be preserved. Finally, it was desirable, and even necessary, to demonstrate the very great dangers of any further resort to arms not only for the parties to the conflict but, in the potential for superpower confrontation, for the world.

These were not easily reconcilable objectives. Yet Mr. Kissinger succeeded on the whole in reconciling them. The arms deliveries to Israel were managed in such a way as to afford a striking demonstration of Israeli dependence on the U.S. (a dependence, it must be added, that the Israeli government went out of its way to confirm). This dependence was given further confirmation by the act of denying to Israeli forces the victory held out to them through the near encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army. That act of denial, it is true, was formally imposed by both superpowers. In effect, it was made possible by the United States and was evidently intended by Mr. Kissinger to preserve a viable bargaining position with the Egyptians in the postwar period. Mr. Kissinger's trip to Moscow and the subsequent imposition of a cease-fire by the superpowers were exhibited as the “fruits of détente.” But though the structure of détente was thus preserved, the Soviet threat to send forces to Egypt and the American reaction in calling a strategic alert demonstrated the grave dangers held out for superpower confrontation by any further resort to force. The “lesson” has not been forgotten. During the past two years both the Secretary and his critics have been as one in emphasizing the terrible dangers inherent in another round of hostilities.

Although the sudden intrusion of the oil weapon cannot be said to have provided the initial promptings of the new policy, there is no question but that it gave this policy greatly added incentive and a seemingly compelling logic. For the lesson widely drawn from the Arab embargo set off by the October war has been that a future war between Israel and the Arab states would in all probability provoke another and more serious embargo. In this event the United States would be confronted with the choice of passivity or intervention, and while the risks of intervention in the Persian Gulf have been well advertised—indeed, exhausted almost with relish—there is no gainsaying the risks of remaining passive once again. Critics of intervention have argued, among other things, that our resort to force in the Middle East would strain relations with our major allies to a breaking point. Even if the argument is accepted without question, there remains the equally weighty argument that passivity before another and more stringent embargo would demonstrate America's impotence to the world and, particularly, to those very allies who are on record as being resolutely opposed to intervention. If intervention would subject the American alliance system to great strain, passivity would do so as well.

It is not difficult, then, to understand Washington's compelling interest in preventing another round of hostilities and its penchant for indulging in apocalyptic visions of the consequences further hostilities hold out. Yet these dangers—in part real, though in large part exaggerated and self-serving—must be balanced against what are seen as the opportunities presented by the new policy. In the competition, despite détente, with the Soviet Union, to establish oneself as mediator in the Middle East is to score a considerable success. That success, moreover, need not be bought at the price of détente. For whatever we may think of the official version of détente, it is necessary to recognize that even in the official version détente has been given only limited applicability in the Middle East. The parties have been at pains to employ verbal discretion, but not much more. Nor is it only with respect to our principal rival that the new policy holds out opportunities. Of even greater importance, perhaps, are the opportunities offered for retaining America's predominant position over major allies vitally dependent upon Middle Eastern oil. If it is the failure of the new policy that may one day be held responsible for shutting off oil to Western Europe and Japan, it is the success of this policy that can be exploited by its managers as a means of leverage in allied relationships.



It is in the light of these general considerations that the present relationship between Israel and the United States must be examined. That this relationship has changed and very markedly so in the past two years, if only in the sense that Israel has become more dependent on the United States, will not be disputed. Yet the dangers inherent in the relationship are, when not simply glossed over, seriously underestimated. For the congruence of interests that might make so increasingly dependent a relationship tolerable—if never desirable—no longer exists. Indeed, it has never really existed, though it more nearly approximated the ideal in earlier years. Today, it is to indulge in nothing less than sheer delusion to speak of a congruence of interests between the two states. Whereas Israel's preoccupation with insuring her physical security remains as dominant as ever, Washington's interests in the Middle East have become more diverse and complex than ever. The security of Israel is only one of these interests that must be balanced against others which may at any time be seen as threatened by the manner in which an Israeli government interprets its essential security requirements. Yet the relationship of dependence that has now developed is such that anything markedly less than a congruence of interests holds out very considerable dangers for both parties.

The administration's step-by-step diplomacy cannot square the circle of an ever more dependent relationship that is nevertheless marked by a substantial divergence of interest. One can only wonder at those who apparently believe that it can or, just possibly, might do so. The objective requirements of step-by-step diplomacy, if it is to register continuing success, are that the Arab states—certainly those states directly involved in this diplomacy—retain confidence in the ability of the American government to effect a return of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In turn, the ability of the American government to effect this return is a critical function of the degree of dependence—not confidence, let it be emphasized, but dependence—that Israel has on the United States. For without a marked dependence, Israel would surely remain unwilling to make territorial concessions—at any rate, to do so in the absence of those concessions on the part of the Arabs which the latter remain as unwilling as ever to make.

It is perfectly true that Israel would be dependent upon America in any event, given the newly found wealth and power of the Arabs. The point, however, is not that step-by-step diplomacy has created a dependence where there was none, but that the logic of this diplomacy is inevitably to make Israel more dependent. Nor is this point turned aside by the argument that the Geneva alternative might result in an equally dependent Israel. The answer to this argument is that it would indeed have the same result if employed to extract concessions from Israel in return for American aid and support, though not Arab concessions. The logic of step-by-step may be applied to the Geneva alternative just as it may be applied to proposals for an American guarantee.


All this is so evident that one wonders why step-by-step diplomacy has been charged with obfuscating the fact that the American government has abandoned its former support of the concept whereby peace in the Middle East would have to come through a process of direct negotiation between Israel and the Arabs. In retrospect, the question arises how serious this support has ever been, at least in Mr. Kissinger's mind. Today, at any rate, it is clearly displaced by a policy which can do no more than hold out the distant hope that the day may come when there will be direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For an indefinite period, however, the diplomatic reality will be an America that negotiates separately with the parties to the conflict and to whom the parties must in practice bring their complaints.

In these respects step-by-step diplomacy is anything but ambiguous—the vice against which its critics have, for the most part, concentrated their fire. The logic of the relationships required by this diplomacy, if it is to work, is quite clear. What remains unclear and therefore ambiguous are the substantive results the step-by-step process is expected eventually to yield. To supporters, this lack of clarity, far from being a vice, is in the circumstances a virtue. Thus it is argued that the Middle East represents a classic example of a conflict which can only be resolved by the diplomatic process if deliberate ambiguity is maintained over the shape of the ultimate outcome. Where neither side to a conflict can acknowledge the outlines of a settlement that both may nevertheless be willing to accept in time, ambiguity is indispensable. What adversaries will not accept when presented as a whole, they may very well accept when unfolded over a period of time in increments—or steps. To this theorem is appended a corollary. Ambiguity over ends is a valid and, indeed, essential procedure where there is a reasonable expectation that differences between adversaries, though profound at the outset of the step-by-step process, can eventually be narrowed through agreements which slowly establish an increasing measure of trust and confidence.


Is this now familiar defense of ambiguity and, more generally, of step-by-step diplomacy plausible when applied to the Middle East conflict? One must doubt that it is. The ambiguity that may characterize step-by-step diplomacy is a virtue where the contending parties, though still unwilling and perhaps unable to acknowledge the outcome of a conflict, are nevertheless persuaded, for whatever reasons, that time is no longer working in their favor—that victory, as they have heretofore defined it, is no longer within their grasp. There is no reason for assuming that the Arab states have reached this point.1 If we compare the position of the Arab world in 1967 with its position today, it is quite the contrary assumption that must be made. Even in 1967, in the after-math of a crushing defeat and without the immense political leverage the Arabs have subsequently come to enjoy, there was not much evidence of a disposition to compromise. Why should one expect such a disposition to manifest itself in a period when Arab wealth and power are rapidly increasing, when Arab states are persuaded that October 1973 represented an Arab victory, and when the isolation of and pressures on Israel by a world that fears another embargo are only too apparent?

One possible answer is that it is precisely because of their new position that the Arabs will eventually prove willing to make concessions. What could not be done from a position of inferiority and sense of humiliation may now be done from a position and sense of growing equality. Another answer is that a disposition to compromise the conflict will come from domestic pressures to undertake internal reform and to concentrate on the task of modernizing economies. In the case of Egypt, these pressures are increasingly seen as creating a substantial question over Egypt's continuing commitment to the conflict. Then, too, there is always the answer that if the eventual return of the territories taken by Israel in 1967 is also attended by a settlement of the Palestinian problem, which can only be taken to mean the creation of a Palestinian state, the principal sources of the conflict must dry up.


None of these answers can be dismissed. Any one of them represents a possible solution, and surely all taken together do so. At the same time, none carries much plausibility. An increase in power and a growing sense of equality with the Western states is a thin reed on which to base expectations of a new Arab willingness to compromise the conflict with Israel. Whether domestic pressures might induce, or force, this or a future Egyptian government to alter its commitment to the conflict must depend, in the first place, upon Egyptian willingness to abandon long-held claims to leadership of the Arab world. Even if it is assumed that so wrenching a move could be made, the question remains whether an inward-oriented Egyptian leadership could make much progress domestically without very substantial outside assistance. It may be that an increasingly desperate domestic situation in Egypt will eventually prompt this or a succeeding regime to move against one of its oil-rich neighbors. But it is very difficult to say what bearing this might have on the conflict with Israel.

The insistence upon the centrality of the Palestinian issue to any resolution of the Middle East conflict at least serves the purpose of avoiding the question: why should the Arab states be satisfied by a return to the pre-1967 boundaries if they were not satisfied then? In stressing the key significance of a solution to the Palestinian issue, one obviously goes beyond the pre-1967 situation. Still, the question persists why this issue is commonly regarded today as so important. The answer cannot be the intrinsic justice of the Palestinian claims, since these claims fell on largely deaf ears for two decades. It was not until the Palestinian guerrillas began to constitute a nuisance, and more, to the West, circa 1969-70, that the justice of their claims found an increasingly sympathetic audience. But the quantum jump in Western sensitivity to these claims clearly followed the October war and reflected the rising influence of the Arab states, an influence based on the threat to employ the oil weapon. To say this is in no way to pass on the justice of the Palestinians' claim to self-determination; it is only to identify one of the moral wellsprings of a cynical world. The Palestinian issue has become central largely because the Arab states find it expedient to make the issue central and most of the world in turn finds it expedient to agree.


There is no apparently plausible reason, then, for the assumption that step-by-step diplomacy will lead the Arab states to make concessions in the future which they have been unwilling to make in the past. It may be the case that this diplomacy “buys time” and that to those who believe the risks of another Middle East war are intolerable there need be no further justification. On another view of these risks, however, the question must arise, buying time for what? Unless we are to retrace largely the same responses that have been given above, we are left with the corollary of the step-by-step theorem: that incremental agreements will eventually result in an increasing measure of trust and confidence between the contending parties. As one administration official, in rather more pragmatic terms, has put it: “Success will breed success, some peace will breed more peace.” Why should this be so, however, if either side believes that time is working in its favor? In this case, success may only breed more exorbitant demands.

There is a far more telling objection, though. The trust and confidence that this particular version of step-by-step diplomacy may be expected to bring is not trust and confidence between adversaries. It is trust and confidence between each contending party and the state that has initiated and presides over this diplomacy. It is not trust and confidence between Egypt (or Syria, or Jordan) and Israel that we may reasonably look forward to but, at most, trust and confidence between each of these states and the United States. Even so, such trust and confidence as America may enjoy will depend upon the nature of the steps this country can induce the respective adversaries to take. And since, in the absence of a credible threat of force against the Arabs, America's power of “inducement” as well as its power to guarantee each step are functions of the dependence of Israel, we are once again back to the logic of the relationships required by the new diplomacy and the dangers it holds out both for Israel and for the United States.



There are two reasons that go far toward explaining the persisting tendency to underestimate the dangers in Israel's increasing dependence on the United States. One is the belief that a special relationship holds between the two countries, a relationship that transcends ordinary calculations of state interest. The other is the conviction that Israel is no ordinary small nation but one that has an almost obsessive concern over compromising its independence through loss of self-reliance. To be sure, this trait not infrequently makes dealing with Israel quite difficult and aggravating. Still, these drawbacks are thought to be more than compensated for by the assurance they give that the dependence will not bring the psychological and moral erosion of the dependent it has so regularly brought on other occasions.

Taken together, then, the belief in a special relationship and the conviction of a special nation open the prospect of entertaining a markedly dependent relationship without incurring the dangers normally held out by such relationships. Understandably it is the recent experience of Vietnam that forms for many the reference point and standard of comparison when considering the American-Israeli relationship. That the referent and standard may prove relevant to Israel remains, however, a minority view. Israel is not Vietnam, the prevailing consensus would have it, and the relationship of Vietnam to the United States cannot be meaningfully compared with the relationship of Israel to the United States. This being so, the dangers revealed by Vietnam are deemed largely irrelevant in the case of Israel.

Does it matter, though, that Israel is not Vietnam and that the two cases must be distinguished? Perhaps it is precisely for the reason that Israel is not Vietnam that the growing dependence of Israel holds out serious dangers for the United States. For whatever the emotions aroused in this country over Vietnam, the emotions that might one day be aroused over Israel could make that former experience pale by comparison. Vietnam was, after all, “a far away country” for Americans and the Vietnamese were “a people of whom we knew nothing,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain's statement about Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich crisis. Can we say the same of Israel? If not, the internal divisiveness brought by Vietnam could appear almost benign alongside the divisive potential of Israel. Considering this potential, it would almost seem comforting if Israel could be placed in the same relationship to this nation that Vietnam was placed.

Moreover, does it matter that Israel is not Vietnam when considering the dangers of dependence for Israel? However obsessive Israel's concern with remaining independent, the reality of dependence cannot be obscured. It would be different if the Israelis had a viable alternative to the United States and to which they could turn, if only temporarily, when pushed too far. The North Vietnamese had such an alternative, and the fact that they did must in considerable measure account for their success in maintaining a remarkable political independence while being militarily very dependent. But the Israelis do not enjoy the advantages conferred by a strategy of alternate dependencies. On what grounds is it so confidently asserted that they will nevertheless successfully resist the debilitation a marked dependence has so often brought to others?

It is not enough to reply by pointing to the profound consciousness of a past that is seen so largely in terms of betrayal and insecurity. The issue is whether this consciousness will prove a reliable source of resistance and fortitude in straitened circumstances. There is no assurance that it will, unless it is assumed that a history of persecution and fear must eventually give rise to, or find its compensation in, an extraordinary fortitude and sense of self-confidence. It may do so, though the instances in which the reverse has been true are, to say the least, rather impressive. If the Israelis are expected to prove so resistant to the dangers of dependence, one can only hope for a more reassuring argument than this. Indeed, it is significant that many in this country who press the argument do not do so with consistency. The same observers who assure us that Israeli confidence and self-reliance cannot be broken, however dependent that nation may become, also assure us—in another context—that because of a history (and thus an expectation) of victory that goes back to the founding of the state, Israeli morale could not survive a defeat in war. A boundless confidence and self-reliance are projected in the one situation, and the utter disappearance of these traits projected in the other. Whereas the former assurance serves to defend the pursuit of a policy designed to make Israel increasingly dependent, the latter assurance serves as a warning to the Israelis against thoughts of any further recourse to arms.

The truth is that no one can say with confidence what the effects of prolonged and marked dependence might promise for Israel. What can be said is that in the light of the history of dependent relationships, the dangers held out are very real. These dangers cannot be made light of by appeal to a special character the Israelis are assumed to possess. That character has already given signs of wavering under the pressures of the past two years. It may be argued that despite these pressures the wavering would not have occurred with the leadership of yesterday. The prospect of more Ben-Gurions is not very promising, though. Instead, the outlook is for a competent leadership, like the present one, that reflects the growing bureaucratization of state and society.

Nor should it be forgotten that in this case the issue of dependence cuts deeply since it raises the issue of the very legitimacy of the Jewish state. The basic idea of Zionism was not simply to create another small nation-state, but one in which the Jews would live without fear and one in which they could be masters of their own destiny rather than protected individuals. Admittedly, the world has become a much more dangerous place since the early days of the Zionist movement. This being so, it will be said, small states must reconcile themselves to varying degrees of dependence. Still, there are degrees of dependence; in Israel's case, particularly, a dependence that has no readily discernible limits must place in question the very raison d'être of the state.


There remains the special relationship that is counted on to rule out the dangers of dependence. The first thing that must be said of the special relationship is that even if one takes its existence for granted, it does not preclude the debilitation of the dependent. It may preclude the abandonment of Israel to forces threatening the latter's survival as a state. It does not preclude pressures on Israel to make concessions that in Israeli eyes are one-sided and that, in consequence, are seen to result in a diminished security. For this reason, the special relationship does not preclude the “wearing down” of Israel, just as it does not preclude the corrosive effects that follow from the realization that one's destiny is in the hands of others. No doubt, the pressures applied to Israel would be attended by the conviction of many that, given the special relationship, such pressures were for Israel's ultimate benefit. But this conviction, particularly to the extent it is sincere, may only mean that the pressures applied to Israel are applied with a good conscience, for the risks Israel is required to take for peace may therefore be justified by the assurance that a special relationship makes the taking of these risks only reasonable.

The principal bases of the special relationship are the common dedication of the two countries to free institutions and the ties of American Jewry to Israel. Are these bases such as to insure against the hazards of dependence in a context of otherwise divergent interests? Once again, the hazards of dependence should not be identified simply with physical survival. It is not only Israel's bare physical survival that is at issue here, though one day it could possibly come to this, but the loss of control that may lead to the psychological and moral erosion of a people. Certainly, the special relationship is a modest affair if all that it can promise is that, whatever else may happen, Israel will not be physically destroyed.

Whether the special relationship can even promise this remains an open question. Still, assuming that it can do so, there is always the further question: which Israel, physically or territorially, will not be destroyed? It is interesting that anything more than physical security is treated with a marked impatience. If one raises the issue of the debilitating effects of dependence, one is reminded that independence is “a state of mind,” a matter largely of “perceptions.” Presumably, then, if Israelis would adopt the proper outlook, they could adjust to the new realities without danger. Of course, what is really conveyed by this argument, though those making it wish to put the point delicately, is that the independence of small states may require severe limitation when such independence is seen to jeopardize the interests of great powers.

These considerations apart, there is the question of the extent to which the United States is committed today to the preservation of free institutions in the world. The question is not rhetorical, for it is clear that the “new maturity” has already moved some distance away from an earlier outlook in which security was broadly defined to include the protection of those societies that shared our institutions and values. Even in an earlier period, though, it is misleading to find in the preservation of free institutions the mainspring of American policy. The nation's physical security and material well-being provided the compelling interest of policy, and it is this interest that was crucial in leading the United States to intervene in World War II and subsequently to join the cold war with the Soviet Union. In the period following World War II, the commitments made to Western Europe and Japan responded, in the first place, to conventional balance-of-power calculations. The preservation of free institutions was no doubt an important consideration in making these commitments, but it was a narrower conception of interest that must above all acount for them. In Israel's case, this narrower conception of interest has never been fully apparent to American policy-makers; hence the cautious and often uneasy relationship entertained with Israel since the early 1950's. It is less apparent today than ever, yet we are asked to believe that its absence will be satisfactorily compensated for, and the dangers of dependence safeguarded against, by a common dedication to free institutions. On the face of it, the argument cannot but provoke skepticism.

It is true that the public continues to manifest considerable sympathy and support for Israel. This sympathy and support, surveys indicate, reflect a varying motivation of which a common dedication to free institutions is an element. There is no evidence, however, that the public gives this element marked emphasis. Nor is there much evidence that the public is committed to the idea of a special relationship with Israel. It is largely by contrast with the reservations widely held toward the Arab world, reservations recently reinforced by resentment over the manner in which Arab states are seen to have used their oil power, that the relationship with Israel appears special. Then, too, it is Israel's past self-reliance that has appealed to the public, particularly by contrast with the experience in Vietnam.


How would the public react to a dependent Israel, yet an Israel that is increasingly at odds with American diplomacy in the Middle East? Although the uncertainties attending public opinion need not be labored, it takes a determined optimist to resist the conclusion that this formula holds out anything but trouble. Dependents are expected to be grateful for what they are given. And if they are unable or unwilling to show gratitude, they are at least expected not to cause trouble for those who have supported them. But the divergence of interests today between Israel and the United States is bound to place the former in the position of “causing trouble,” that is, of appearing resistant to American interests in the Middle East. Even without the guidance of an administration intent upon equating these interests with achieving a just peace, opinion is likely to react adversely. With a determined effort by government to guide public opinion, Israeli resistance to American pressures will be increasingly seen, as it is already seen by a substantial portion of the foreign-policy elites, as intransigence.2

In this situation, the ties of American Jewry to Israel can scarcely be expected to moderate the clash of interests between the two states. If anything, these ties may be expected to aggravate further Israeli-American relations. Israel will be tempted to appeal for more than the normal support it receives from American Jews. In turn, an American government as well as a majority of the American public will resent this appeal and the resentment will be directed not only against those making the appeal but against those to whom it is made. The ties of American Jewry to Israel may well prove to be least effective precisely when they are most needed by Israel.

In any event, the divisive domestic potential of this situation for America is clear. Insofar as it continues to support the Israeli position, a substantial and important minority will be increasingly vulnerable to the charge of subordinating American foreign policy to the interests of Israel. Moreover, there will be a certain ironic justice in the charge, given the many critical American interests that are presently linked to the Middle East conflict. Nor is it sufficient to reply that if America were pursuing the proper foreign policy today, a divergence of interests between the two countries would not arise. Even if this reply were well-taken, it is unavoidably open to the criticism that it equates what is good for Israel with what is good for the United States.



Would the dangers implicit in the present American-Israeli relationship be lessened by an American security guarantee to Israel?3

It should be clear that a guarantee is not involved in the Sinai accords, for this nation bears no formal responsibility for the agreements that result from the step-by-step process. It is responsible, at best, only for those unilateral undertakings it may make with the individual parties. The American position thus cannot be equated with that of a guarantor, whether in a formal sense or in a practical sense. It cannot be so equated in a formal sense for the simple reason that we have not agreed to guarantee the steps so far taken. It cannot be so equated in a practical sense because—short of a credible threat of force—we have no reliable sanctions to invoke against the Arab states should they choose not to abide by an agreement. Our credibility as a guarantor extends only to the state whose dependence on us is such that only in extremis would it choose to violate an agreement and thereby jeopardize our step-by-step diplomacy.4

A guarantee would not lessen Israel's dependence on the United States. This is acknowledged by the proponents of a guarantee who conclude that Israel's dependence on this country is in any event unavoidable. At the same time, it is argued, there is dependence and dependence. Although a guarantee would establish a dependent relationship, those urging a guarantee contend that it would make dependence much less dangerous for the two parties than the dependence attending step-by-step diplomacy.

The initial issue that is raised by proposals for an American guarantee is why it is necessary at all if, as many supporters of a guarantee insist, the United States has always been committed to the preservation of Israel. If the United States will not permit Israel to be destroyed, why should an explicit commitment to this effect now prove so important? Surely it is not enough to point to the emergent power of the Arab states. If the commitment to Israel is of long standing, and regarded as reliable, then whatever the change in the position of the Arab states, Israel's position remains essentially unimpaired. Moreover, it remains essentially unimpaired regardless of the support given Israel's neighbors by the Soviet Union.

Are the purposes of the guarantee, then, to appease the Israelis' insatiable need for security reassurance while clearly depriving them of further justification for remaining in the occupied territories? Unquestionably, for some proponents these are the purposes a guarantee is designed to serve. In their view, the guarantee is little more than a manipulative device for forcing Israel into a more tractable position. Since it is taken for granted that the Israelis will not obtain the concessions they have demanded of the Arabs as a condition of withdrawal, they must be given reassurance by the United States. But this explicit reassurance is seen to add very little to the preexisting American commitment. The guarantee is significant primarily in that it formalizes this commitment. Not surprisingly, those who take this view manifest only a modest concern over the credibility of the guarantee to others and the many difficult problems its implementation may be expected to raise.

Whether or not this view of an American guarantee should be considered as a thinly-veiled deception is a fine point. For those who apparently are persuaded that the Israelis have exaggerated their security problem out of all proportion, particularly given the American commitment not to permit Israel's destruction, the charge of deception may seem excessive. The charge of obtuseness does not. In 1967 the American government refused to commit itself to the forcible reopening of the Straits of Tiran. Would it have nevertheless prevented Arab intrusion into Israeli territory? In 1973 the American government delayed for more than a week in sending war material to Israel. Would it have nevertheless committed forces against Syria had the latter taken the Golan Heights and carried its attack into northern Israel? If these questions are absurd, so is the manner in which Israel's security and the American commitment to that security are often presented. The American commitment has never been a commitment to defend Israel. It has not even been a clear commitment to provide Israel with such war material as it may need to defend itself, else the initial days of the 1973 war would be inexplicable.

Another view of the guarantee does acknowledge that whatever the American commitment to Israel, past or present, it is inadequate as a substitute for the security conferred by the territorial buffers. Though in this view as well the guarantee is a means for making Israel tractable, it is also put forth as a real and necessary substitute for the security presently conferred by the occupied territories. By explicitly insuring Israel's security, the guarantee presumably opens the way for the return of the occupied territories and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. It does so though the deeper sources of the Arab-Israeli conflict are expected to persist. The guarantee, as we are often reminded by its supporters, cannot be expected to remove these deeper sources. It is not designed to effect a normalization of relations. Instead, it is intended to provide an alternative to the peace Israel has for so long demanded, since that kind of peace will remain unattainable for many years. Nor would there be much point to a guarantee, were it not for the assumption that the condition attending the guarantee will be, at best, a de facto peace.


What is the difference between the strategy of the guarantee and the strategy of step-by-step diplomacy? With respect to what is required of Israel, there is no apparent difference in principle between the two. The concessions Israel is eventually expected to make as a result of step-by-step diplomacy are, by and large, the concessions required by the guarantee. From this standpoint, the latter strategy may be regarded as a telescoped version of the former strategy. Whereas the guarantee draws the concessions at once, and as a condition of making the guarantee, step-by-step draws them incrementally over a prolonged period.

Nor is there an apparent difference in principle between the two strategies with respect to what is expected of the Arabs. Neither expects the Arabs to recognize Israel (certainly not formally so), to make treaties of peace, and to take those measures normally consequent upon such actions. It may even be argued that there is no apparent difference in principle between the two strategies with respect to what the Israelis are to be given by the United States in return for concessions made to the Arabs. For step-by-step diplomacy does not reject the notion of a formal guarantee. Instead, it reserves this issue to a much later point, while content to give largely informal “assurances” along the way. Assuming that step-by-step diplomacy is not averse to the notion of a formal guarantee, the principal difference between the two strategies is one over when the guarantee is to be offered.

Is the latter difference critical? To many supporters of the guarantee strategy it is, for a guarantee given at the outset would presumably enable Israel to escape from the dilemma imposed on her by step-by-step diplomacy—that is, either of appearing intransigent or of running considerable risks. But one horn of that dilemma is surely apparent in the guarantee strategy, unless the reliability of the guarantee is placed beyond question. For Israel is being asked to make vital concessions at the outset as a condition of receiving the guarantee. Although the risks inherent in step-by-step diplomacy are not to be denied, these risks are taken only incrementally. Time holds out the prospect at least of somehow compensating for them. When they are taken all at once, this prospect necessarily diminishes.

If a guarantee is to reduce the risks Israel incurs through step-by-step diplomacy, it must be quite credible to all of the concerned parties. Proponents concede there is a problem of making a security guarantee credible to Israel, and so there is. Quite apart from the permanence of a guarantee, once given, the Israelis are skeptical that the United States would employ force against the Arab states. This skepticism is scarcely allayed by concentrating on the strictly deterrent effects of a guarantee almost to the exclusion of examining American power, and willingness to use that power, to defend Israel should the deterrent fail. Yet it is on the known willingness and the power to defend, and if necessary to punish, that the power to deter must rest.

Those who speak with such confidence about the deterrent effect of an American guarantee appear to assume that the magisterial authority of the United States remains undiminished. Yet many who make this assumption have insisted during the past year that successful American intervention in the Persian Gulf must prove militarily beyond our capability as well as being politically disastrous. This response has not exactly contributed to our magisterial authority. A deterrent threat must be very seriously eroded if those against whom it is made have already been assured of our limitations. How reliable would an American guarantee to Israel be if invoking it were to bring on an oil embargo that, by our own admission, we either would not respond to by forcible intervention or could not do so without disaster?


The threat of an embargo alone, then, must cast doubt upon the credibility of an American guarantee. In turn, the doubt raised by the prospect of an embargo illustrates an obvious, though critical, point. A guarantee will be credible only to the degree that there is a substantial identity of interest between the United States and Israel. Yet the absence of such identity of interest is at the heart of the difficulties presently besetting American-Israeli relations. Unless we assume that these difficulties will be subordinated to the imperative of the special relationship, they may well persist despite a guarantee. And if they do, will not the credibility of a guarantee be undermined from the outset?

It has been argued that the very condition of making the guarantee guards against this danger, since the guarantee will be made only if the difficulties presently besetting American-Israeli relations are largely resolved. Once Israel agrees to give up the occupied territories an identity of interest will emerge, and this identity will give credibility to the guarantee. One may doubt whether matters are quite this simple. The Arab-Israeli conflict will not disappear once the occupied territories are given up (and if it were to disappear what would be the purpose of a guarantee?). Besides, “giving up” the occupied territories is, as everyone knows, not to be taken literally, since quite apart from the issue of a Palestinian state there is little, if any, prospect for a full restoration of the 1967 boundaries. The issue of Jerusalem alone precludes this. The dangers of further hostilities, with the attendant threat of an embargo, will accordingly persist.

These considerations nevertheless suggest that the credibility its supporters assume the guarantee will have is a function of the concessions Israel is expected to make as a condition. The greater the concessions, this reasoning goes, the smaller the divergence of interests. The smaller the divergence of interests, the greater the credibility. The logic of the guarantee, therefore, is to place Israel in a very vulnerable and dependent position, since it is only by virtue of this position that the guarantee is extended and that it achieves real credibility. But this must mean that the guarantee will be attended by substantial American forces in and around the territory of the guaranteed state. It will not do to argue for the attractiveness of the guarantee by emphasizing the efficiency of Israeli forces, the implication being that, after all, these forces will continue to provide for Israel's security as they have provided for it in the past. If the guarantee is to serve as a substitute for the territorial buffers, and for the other concessions Israel is expected to make, then it should serve as a substitute, and this it can do only through a very substantial American military presence—a presence that, among other things, will leave no doubt over American capability effectively to react, if necessary, against the threat of an embargo. If, on the other hand, it is Israeli forces that are to provide for Israel's security, then the real “substitute” for the territorial buffers Israel is to give up is not the guarantee but Israeli forces. In this event the guarantee is indeed a fraud and for the reason that the purpose it is alleged to serve it will not in fact serve and is not intended to serve.


There seems no escape from the conclusion that an American guarantee to Israel is either a deception, however unconscious, or a very serious undertaking. It is a deception if it seeks to exchange the substance for the shadow, the occupied territories for a commitment of doubtful credibility. If it represents a serious undertaking, however, it must expect to encounter great difficulty in obtaining congressional approval. Certainly, it would not be approved at all unless the Senate knew at the time of ratification what it was approving. This it could only know if the details of a territorial settlement had already been worked out (and if the methods for policing such a settlement were also clearly defined). But what would induce Israel to agree to a settlement in the absence of a credible guarantee? Given the Israeli reluctance to enter into any guarantee, however credible, it is a bad joke to suggest that withdrawal might be undertaken in exchange for a contingent guarantee.

The problem of timing, though not insoluble, poses very considerable difficulties. It does so because the guarantee is expected to stabilize a territorial settlement once reached, yet to provide an indispensable condition for reaching such a settlement. These difficulties might be overcome by a guarantee that takes effect as the territorial settlement takes effect, though to bring this off would be a feat of almost heroic proportion. Even so, its achievement would leave entirely open the issue of the guaranteed state's dependence on the guarantor and the dangers held out by this relationship for both parties. A credible guarantee might represent one improvement over the present form of dependence in reducing the corrosive uncertainties of step-by-step diplomacy. Apart from this improvement, though, the dangers of dependence already alluded to would very likely remain. It is not a guarantee that holds out the promise of removing these dangers but a congruence of interests, which, it cannot be repeated too often, does not exist. A guarantee can “create”—or perhaps impose—a congruence of interests, though only at the risk of the guaranteed state's becoming a virtual protectorate of the guarantor.



It is one thing to warn against a relationship that is almost certainly destined for trouble and quite another to discern a viable alternative. Clearly, any alternative to the present relationship will have to come from initiatives taken by Israel rather than the United States. The immediate and tangible advantages to Washington of step-by-step diplomacy are such that one cannot expect them to be given up by the prospect of dangers which may or may not impress those entrusted with the conduct of policy and which, in any event, are still some way down the road. Yet the initiatives open to Israel are not exactly plentiful. A strategy of alternate dependencies, as already noted, appears foreclosed so long as the candidates—and there are very few—themselves remain dependent upon Middle Eastern oil. In the best of circumstances, Israel is not an attractive ally, and the present circumstances are evidently not the best. The idea, put forward by a number of observers here and abroad, that Western Europe might provide an alternative to the United States, if only in the sense of moderating the Arab position toward Israel, must largely ignore the influence of oil. Even if it had the will to do so, Western Europe is scarcely in a position to moderate Arab behavior.

In the absence of viable alternate dependencies, Israel can seek to limit its dependence on the United States principally by developing to the maximum extent feasible its own sources of arms. This it is of course doing, but there are limits to what can be done. In part, these limits are technological; in larger part, they are economic. Even if technological constraints were eventually reduced to negligible proportions, economic constraints could not be so reduced, since whether in its domestic development or foreign procurement of conventional weapons Israel cannot hope indefinitely to compete with the growing economic power of the Arab states. It is already apparent that an attempt to do so has put the Israeli economy under serious strain. The United States can provide the military aid that Israel cannot afford given its limited resources, but this only underscores the dependence of Israel.

In these circumstances, a new and hard look at the role of nuclear weapons in future Israeli military strategy is very likely. It is true that the present military balance in the Middle East favors Israel and will probably continue to do so for several years. Beyond this intermediate period, though, there is marked uncertainty. How will this uncertainty be resolved, if indeed it is consciously resolved at all? One possible resolution is that Israel will choose whatever policy appears to hold out the greatest prospect of limiting its dependence on others while keeping defense expenditures within manageable proportions. If so, the change from its present policy of maintaining a “nuclear option” to a policy based on a known nuclear deterrent will inevitably have to be given the most serious consideration.

It is safe to predict that such consideration will provoke a uniformly adverse reaction abroad. Even within Israel it may be expected to lead to controversy, though the depth and seriousness of the controversy will surely reflect what are seen as the consequences of dependence. If these consequences are found to be a progressive deterioration of the country's security position and of its morale, the controversy may well dissolve. But whatever the nature of the debate within Israel, the reaction abroad permits of little doubt, and this despite the now common expectation that Israel would employ nuclear weapons if the survival of the state were ever placed in serious question. Statements to this effect are by this time almost ritualistic. Yet they are regularly attended by the judgment that Israel would make a grave mistake by converting its present and widely advertised option to produce nuclear weapons into a reality.

How is one to make sense of all this? Is it by assuming that the world only recognizes, and is prepared to tolerate, the fact—since it is taken as a fact—that Israel's nuclear option would become a reality in the event survival itself were placed in serious question? If this is so, then the option presumably already serves as a deterrent against the limiting case, though how an option can safely serve as a deterrent is left unclear (a nuclear option being only a promised deterrent—an embryonic deterrent, as it were—and not the deterrent itself). This difficulty aside, the further implication is that the world does not recognize the need for Israel explicitly to move to a military strategy based on a nuclear deterrent and would condemn the move if taken. For such a step would be seen as leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, thereby destabilizing what military balance exists at present, while greatly heightening the dangers of superpower confrontation, whether in the context of a future Middle East crisis or simply by virtue of the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. In effect, the world is prepared to adjust to what Israel is already known to have done, to accept what in all probability would be done in the limiting case, but to resist what might still be done to insure against the dangers of a growing Israeli dependence on the United States and the hazards such dependence might eventually entail.

There is no need here either to repeat once again the general arguments against the proliferation of nuclear weapons or to examine the assumptions on which these arguments are based. Even if the arguments against proliferation are based in part on questionable assumptions, there is no gainsaying the contention that the greater the number of states possessing nuclear weapons, the greater the prospects these weapons will one day be used. States that do not have nuclear weapons evidently cannot be tempted to use them. At the same time, it is clear that the drift toward proliferation has not been checked and probably cannot be checked in the absence of world government. In the period ahead we may expect a number of states to acquire nuclear weapons. Some will do so if only because the possession of such weapons will be seen as indispensable to achieving a status of equality with those who possess nuclear weapons. Others will do so from the conviction that independence must remain incomplete without nuclear weapons. Still others will do so for reasons of security or, however frightening the prospect, for reasons of expansion. The motives of states in obtaining nuclear weapons in the future are very likely to be much the same as the motives of states in obtaining nuclear weapons in the past. It is a familiar story by now that the possessors of these weapons at any given time are loath to acknowledge this, but their reluctance to do so does not alter the point.

It is not the general arguments against proliferation that require much consideration in this case but the special dangers expected to attend an Israeli move to a military strategy based on a nuclear deterrent. No doubt, the general arguments may also be, and have been, applied. But unless one takes into account the special circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the distinctive circumstances of the Israeli position, these more general objections are not very impressive. The case for Israel's possession of a nuclear deterrent appears quite as strong, if not a good deal stronger, than for most of the present nuclear powers. To be sure, the latter are not small states whereas Israel is, and by hallowed custom the needs of small states are not to be equated with the needs of large states. Put in less delicate terms, small states are not to make nuisances of themselves whatever their needs. It may be that one cannot argue with power, but candor at least requires saying so rather than taking resort in a double standard of need.


Although on the face of it Israel's need for a nuclear deterrent is as compelling as that of any state, in the circumstances of the Arab-Israeli conflict the questions persist whether an overt move to a deterrent strategy would not on balance prove injurious to Israel's security interests while holding out special dangers for the region and, ultimately, the world. With respect to Israel's security, the standard case opposing an overt move to a nuclear deterrent stresses the irrelevance of a nuclear force for most of the military threats Israel faces. Against guerrilla operations, limited military strikes, and wars of attrition, nuclear weapons would prove of little, if any, utility. A nuclear force would therefore serve to deter only the one contingency of an all-out attack upon the “core areas” of the state. Moreover, in moving to a nuclear deterrent the Israelis not only risk provoking the Soviet Union to new forms of support for the Arabs—increased conventional arms support and perhaps even a nuclear guarantee—but would risk a break with the United States, since the latter must be expected emphatically to oppose the move. And even if an open break were avoided, Israel would still face the prospect of sharply reduced American arms support. Thus, a deterrent that would not deter the most likely of military contingencies would result in a declining capability to counter those very contingencies. Finally, to these considerations must be added the commonplace view that the overt move to a nuclear deterrent by Israel would provide in turn a compelling incentive for the Arabs to obtain nuclear weapons. The projected consequence is a balance of terror that will prove inherently unstable given the profound distrust between Israel and the Arab states.

To a certain extent, the above case draws its strength from the scenario of an Israel that one day dramatically confronts its Arab adversaries and the world with a nuclear deterrent. The scenario is highly unlikely, though, if Israel's past record in these matters affords an indication of its future behavior. There is no reason why Israel cannot move to the stage of a known nuclear deterrent in the manner it moved to the stage of a known nuclear option. To avoid giving unnecessary provocation, whether to adversaries or to friends, would be no more than elementary prudence. The move would be no less effective for being taken without fanfare and in stages, since the important thing is that it be known.

In considering what an Israeli nuclear deterrent would deter, we may remind ourselves that after twenty years of experience and speculation on this experience, strategic theorists are by no means confident they can define with great precision the scope and purposes of deterrence in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor are the governments of the major nuclear powers so confident, else they would not constantly go through the exercise of deciding upon the proper allocation of resources to non-nuclear forces. There is no reason, then, to ask for a precision in the case of Israel that cannot be found elsewhere. Nor is there reason to criticize a deterrent force for failing to deter what it is either not intended or not primarily intended to deter. Thus it is not a persuasive argument, even if true, to point out that an Israeli nuclear deterrent could not deter guerrilla operations, limited military incursions, or wars of attrition. What it can credibly deter is a direct attack upon the vital, or core, areas of the state as well as military operations that, in their scope and intensity, constitute a proximate threat to these areas. This may not be everything, but for Israel it is still a great deal.

The view that this is all a nuclear force could deter is not persuasive, however. Unless we are to assume that past experience has no relevance to the present case, uncertainty over what is or is not peripheral and, accordingly, over what action might or might not risk a nuclear response, will itself have a deterrent effect. How much effect it will have we cannot know, but a deterrent effect it will have, for the the fear of escalation can be expected to operate here as elsewhere. A new and important inhibition on the resort to large-scale military operations, even though initially confined to border areas, will be operative. So, too, the Arab states will be inhibited from undertaking a long and costly war of attrition, since the latter—if of sufficient intensity—could lead to tensions and a process of escalation that could carry appreciable risk. Even with respect to guerrilla warfare, it is misleading to say that a nuclear deterrent would have little, if any, effect. Guerrilla forces do not inhabit a vacuum but the territory of sovereign states who have something to lose by permitting guerrilla movements to operate at liberty. When the possibility—even though small—arises that guerrilla operations may one day bring mass destruction rather than mere inconvenience, governments can be expected to take a rather different view of these activities.


In sum, while an Israeli nuclear force clearly would not deter all threats to the security of the state, and would not be designed to do so, it would nevertheless deter a great deal. It would probably do so, moreover, even if one assumes a substantial change in the conventional arms balance, a change that no longer leaves Israel in the favored position of today. For with nuclear weapons Israel would no longer require its present superiority in conventional arms. It is true that it also could not risk a position of marked inferiority, particularly in the context of a gradual relinquishment of the territorial buffers. But a position of marked inferiority would not occur unless the Soviet Union responded by a sharp increase in conventional arms support to the Arabs while the United States responded by an equally sharp decrease in such support to the Israelis. Of these two possibilities, it is the latter that is by far the more important, since even a sharp increase in Soviet conventional aid to the Arabs would prove significant only if the United States either withdraws all arms support to Israel or cuts such support to negligible amounts.

Some analysts have argued that the Soviet Union would go beyond this and respond by offering a nuclear guarantee to the Arab states until such time as the latter possessed nuclear weapons of their own. This argument is not given much support by past Russian behavior. Eastern Europe apart, the Soviet Union has refrained from extending nuclear guarantees. Besides, what if the Russians did extend a nuclear guarantee? If the guarantee applied to an offensive war on Israel's part, it might have a stabilizing influence in that it would serve to reduce Arab fears that Israel might use nuclear weapons for expansionist purposes. In the absence of an Arab deterrent, then, a Soviet guarantee could serve a useful purpose. On the other hand, a guarantee might, though this is very unlikely, extend to any first use of nuclear weapons by Israel, regardless of circumstance. But if this is intended to prevent Israel from using nuclear weapons even though being overrun, the guarantee will not prove credible.

It is, in fact, the American reaction that is the decisive argument in the case that has often been made against an Israeli nuclear deterrent. Yet that argument has seldom been examined with the critical care it deserves. That the American government is opposed to an Israeli strategy explicitly based on a nuclear deterrent is apparent. What is not apparent is why it is opposed and how strongly it is opposed. Surely it is not enough to argue that an Israeli nuclear deterrent would provoke an intensely hostile American reaction because it would be seen to threaten détente with the Soviet Union and, as a corollary to this, to increase the risk of a superpower confrontation in the Middle East. Why should it have these effects unless Israel were to use a deterrent for the pursuit of expansionist goals? But the prospect of this may be excluded if for no other reason than that such pursuit would, almost without question, lead to a rupture with America and thereby complete Israel's isolation in the world. Instead, a plausible danger at least is that a nuclear deterrent would tempt Israel to freeze the status quo, or much of it, though now without any real justification for doing so. This danger should not be exaggerated, since it too would eventually risk a rupture with America. Yet even if the worst is assumed—an Israel intent upon keeping the status quo though no longer able to invoke the “secure borders” argument as a justification for doing so—why should this threaten détente and increase the risk of superpower confrontation?

The principal response, though often inarticulate, is simply the fear that with an Israeli nuclear deterrent the superpowers would no longer be able to “manage” crises in the Middle East. The loss of this ability would carry the risk that future crises might well “get out of hand,” with the result that the superpowers would ultimately find themselves directly involved. But an Israeli nuclear deterrent would not heighten the prospect of future crises getting out of hand. If anything, it would diminish this prospect since the Israelis would be in a position that permitted them to exercise restraint while the Arab states would be in a position that—with or without nuclear weapons—compelled them to exercise restraint. It is true that an Israeli nuclear deterrent would decrease superpower leverage, though that leverage would still remain considerable (after all, in the Israeli case there would still be a need for American support, though now reduced). Does it follow from this that détente would be threatened? It would not seem so. What does follow is that the great nuclear states oppose any change that threatens their managerial powers, however modest the change may be, because they equate these powers with stability and the cause of world peace.

The point is often made that by explicitly moving to a strategy of nuclear deterrence Israel would thereby surrender the advantages derived from the nuclear option. In this view, the nuclear option is a form of insurance against Israel's desertion by America and, more concretely, a bargaining chip in Israel's requests for conventional arms. That bargaining chip—in effect, a polite form of blackmail—would presumably be lost once Israel openly moved to a nuclear deterrent. And so it would. But the critical issue for Israel is not only whether a price would have to be paid by abandoning the nuclear option and moving to a nuclear deterrent. It is also how large a price will eventually have to be paid by refusing to go beyond the nuclear option. If the price is an ever increasing dependence attended by rising pressures to surrender the territorial buffers, though without adequate concessions in turn from the Arab states, will it be a wise bargain?



An Israeli nuclear strategy would set limits for both America and Israel to a dependent relationship that is ultimately in the interests of neither state. With a nuclear deterrent, Israel's destiny need no longer rest in American hands. In turn, American responsibility would no longer be without distinct bounds.

The point is commonly made that an Israeli nuclear deterrent must prompt the major Arab states to follow Israel's path. But these states are altogether likely to do so, sooner or later, in any event. An Israeli nuclear deterrent would surely sharpen their incentive to do so. That incentive has already been created, however, by the Israeli nuclear option. Given the growing wealth and power of the Arabs as well as the ever increasing availability of nuclear technology, the acquisition of a nuclear capability cannot be indefinitely denied them. Then, too, the very distrust that is held to make a balance of terror inherently unstable in the Middle East provides a further reason for concluding it will be next to impossible to prevent these states from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In this respect, one must also question whether the stated reason is the real reason for assuming that a Middle East balance of terror must prove inherently unstable. The profound distrust between the Arab states and Israel seems no greater than the distrust between the Soviet Union and China, yet the balance of terror between the latter is not commonly regarded today as inherently unstable. It is true that in the Middle East distrust is also attended by a territorial status quo one side views as illegitimate and intolerable. Even so, this territorial status quo would not of itself make a balance of terror inherently unstable. An Egyptian government would not risk its national substance for the Sinai, nor a Syrian government for the Golan. A Palestinian leadership might risk all, were it in possession of nuclear weapons, but not the governments of the major Arab states.

It is not so much the distrust between the Arab states and Israel that is at the root of the presumed inherent instability of a Middle East balance of terror as the conviction of a distinctive Arab psychology which finds alien the rational calculation a balance of terror requires. It is useful, perhaps even comforting, to recall that a decade or so ago the question was also widely raised whether the Chinese could learn to cope with the demanding requirements brought by the possession of nuclear weapons. That essentially the same question should be raised with respect to Arab states is understandable, though one must still ask for the basis of this questioning. In recent years the Arabs have given the world some notaable lessons in politically astute—and rational—behavior.

The arcane aspects of pan-Arabism apart, much of the conviction in the West of a distinctive Arab psychology—a euphemism in this context for Arab irrationality—is rooted in an inability to comprehend why the Middle East conflict persists when it has become so costly and enervating, and seemingly incapable of successful resolution. Whether its continuation suggests Arab irrationality is a moot question. What is clear is that this Western reaction is an illustration of the ancient adage that other peoples' conflicts always seem irrational.

We have no persuasive reason for believing that, in a nuclear environment, the major Arab countries would behave irrationally. We do have reason for believing they will have every inducement to behave with marked circumspection, just as they will have every inducement to bend their efforts to insure that others in the region do so. A Qaddafi may be willing to take foolish risks—though even this can be seriously questioned—but the major states that are exposed will not. In a nuclear environment, the less responsible activists would be seen as posing enormous dangers to all parties and the need to control them would soon be expressed in policy. Far from proving destabilizing, a nuclear balance between Israel and the major Arab states would have a stabilizing effect. On the Arab side, there would no longer be reason to fear that Israel might be tempted to use its nuclear deterrent for expansionist purposes. On the Israeli side, the present preoccupation with secure borders could markedly diminish. On both sides, the will to resort to a military solution of differences would decline and, in time, disappear.5


Nuclear power cannot provide a solution to the basic problems which define the Middle East and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. What nuclear power can provide is an environment in which these problems either must remain unresolved or their resolution sought through means other than war. In a nuclear environment, the Arabs' goals—or rather the goals of pan-Arabism—cannot be fulfilled save at an unbearable cost to those major Arab states who alone can fulfill these goals. Nuclear weapons cannot force the Arab states formally to abandon these goals, just as they cannot force the Arab states to negotiate directly with Israel and thereby to recognize Israel's existence. But a nuclear environment can give these states a very great incentive and justification to move in this direction, however fitfully, and to do so under cover of an Arab version of coexistence. In a word, a nuclear environment can give the major Arab protagonists the way out that so many Western observers assert they dearly want but cannot presently admit.

On the other side, nuclear power can serve in large measure as a substitute for the territorial security that is presently expressed in Israeli policy. A nuclear deterrent would transform Israel's security problem and enable the relinquishment of the occupied territories without the need to insist upon concessions the Arabs will almost surely not make (and will not make during the period in which Israel is the sole Middle East nuclear power). With the decline in significance of “secure borders,” not only would the justification for holding on to the territorial buffers be stripped away but also the security arguments for opposing the creation of a Palestinian state (the security arguments being the only ones that deserve a hearing). And if there nevertheless remains a justification for insisting upon the demilitarization of a Palestinian state—at least, for an initial period—there is no justification for arrangements, however euphemistically explained, which make such a state a virtual protectorate of Israel. The Israelis, above all, are in no position to extol the benefits of protectorate status for those who do not want these benefits.


It is ironic that perhaps the most serious danger attending an Israeli nuclear strategy, apart from the danger of a complete break with America, is so seldom mentioned. A nuclear deterrent would, I have argued here, largely deliver Israel from the dangers it presently faces. But what would prevent Israel, once delivered from these dangers, from pursuing a hawkish policy and employing a nuclear deterrent to freeze the status quo (or, at any rate, all of it save the Sinai)? It is hardly enough to respond that such a policy would be unwise if only because it would leave Israel forever unreconciled with its adversaries while possessed of a large and hostile Arab population that either must be denied the right to participate fully in the political process or, if given the right, might one day be in a position to subvert it. All this is true, but Israel has acted unwisely before and, if left to its own devices, might do so again.

Nor will it do to respond that with Israel delivered from its principal security fears, a hawkish position will no longer carry any persuasiveness, that the argument for a “greater Israel” must appear as little more than an imperialist program, and that, all else failing, a hawkish position will be seen to carry the risk of further conflagration which courts catastrophe for both Israel and Arab countries. It is much too simple to argue that a hawkish position carries appeal only in the present circumstances, just as it is much too simple to argue that the many attractions of holding the West Bank would be warded off by exposing them as imperialism. Without pressure to yield the West Bank and to permit the creation of a Palestinian state we are thrown back on the wisdom and foresight the Israelis might, or again might not, show. And if it is true that a hawkish policy might lead to catastrophe, with a nuclear deterrent the odds are that it would not.

Israel might well be able to pursue a hawkish policy, particularly with respect to the West Bank, if all it needed to fear was the retaliation of its principal protagonists. For they might well be neutralized over the issue of the West Bank through a combination of concessions and threats. If this combination cannot be ruled out even in the present circumstances, it certainly could not be ruled out once Israel were to possess a nuclear deterrent. In a nuclear environment, the Palestinian Arabs would become the most likely losers.

This prospect might be reduced by the United States, since Israel would remain sensitive to American pressures and certainly to the risk of breaking with this country. Ironically, perhaps, it is the United States that could afford a “guarantee” of sorts that justice be done to the Palestinians. This is a far cry from the guarantee I have earlier criticized, though surely one which the present proponents of a guarantee to Israel should prefer, assuming they are as concerned as they profess to be over the fate of the Palestinians.



All conflicts eventually come to an end. In the past they have done so through the irrevocable defeat of one side, the gradual exhaustion of both, the breakup of coalitions, or the intrusion of outside powers. The nuclear age has added still another possibility: the danger of the physical destruction of both sides. It is the latter danger that a nuclearization of the Middle East conflict must raise. In seeking to minimize this danger, the protagonists cannot but alter, and profoundly so, the manner in which they view their conflict.

To say this is not to preclude other, and more traditional, methods of conflict termination (or transformation). The realization that the continuation of a conflict could jeopardize the very existence of the contestants might well provide a significant opening for differences to develop among the partners in the Arab coalition, differences which might otherwise remain suppressed. We are often reminded, and with reason, that Israel faces a coalition, that coalitions do not last forever, and that there are many divisive forces at work within the Arab coalition. All this is true, though it is also true that until now the Arab coalition has demonstrated remarkable staying power. The view that the coalition will break up only when the object which brought it into being has ceased to exist is perhaps excessively pessimistic—though this pessimism seems no more unwarranted than the optimism that for two decades has resulted in periodic frustration.

Given the present circumstances, it is not surprising that speculation has once again turned to the possibility of detaching the principal Arab state from the conflict. The contrast between the rich and the poor in the Arab world daily grows more vivid. Egypt remains among the poor, the desperately poor, yet it has borne the brunt of the conflict with Israel. Why should Egypt not decide to improve its domestic situation, even if by “betraying” the common cause? Egypt's Arab partners hold out little promise of saving it from economic disaster. If such disaster is to be avoided, many argue today, it will only be by turning to more promising sources for assistance—above all, the United States. And if the United States is unwilling or unable to provide assistance of the kind and magnitude Egypt needs, it may yet turn against one of its neighbors to obtain the means for alleviating severe distress. Libya is a likely candidate. Yet the occupation of Libya would both divert Egypt's energies away from the conflict with Israel while placing it in opposition to other Arab states.

These prospects cannot be disregarded. Taken alone, however, they form but modest grounds for optimism over the possibility of the Arab coalition's breaking up. That possibility, if it is to materialize, requires yet another element: the realization that the objective which has formed the coalition's raison d'être can no longer be achieved. It is this element that nuclear deterrence can provide.



1 Curiously, the belief that time is on one's side is more often attributed by Western observers to the Israelis than to the Arabs. In fact, the belief is entertained only by the minority of hardliners in Israel and even among many of them one is left in doubt over whether they are true believers. Even so, the critical point here is not the pervasiveness of the belief—whether among Arabs or Israelis—but the objective basis, or lack thereof, for it.

2 The well-publicized survey of Louis Harris (see “Oil 01 Israel,” the New York Times Magazine, April 6, 1975) does not contradict these remarks. Harris writes: “An Israel which appears to shun all peace efforts and boasts of its military power could well be told to find its backing elsewhere. In sharp contrast, an Israel which appeared eminently reasonable about negotiations can easily make its case for continued military aid. At the moment, Israel is benefiting as much from anti-Arab sentiment over oil as from pro-Israeli feeling in its own right.” But whether Israel appears “eminently reasonable” about negotiations will depend in large measure upon how an American government and opinion leaders define what is reasonable, and this cannot be separated from how American interests are defined.

3 We discuss in these pages only proposals for an American guarantee rather than proposals for a superpower (Soviet-American) guarantee and various kinds of multilateral, or collective, guarantees. Considerations of space apart, the reasons for so limiting the discussion may be stated in summary form. The history of guarantees indicates that unilateral guarantees have been more credible and effective than those based on a consensus, whether of two (or more) great powers or a number of middle-rank and small states. A general experience is not decisive for a specific case, but it cannot safely be ignored. Proponents of a Soviet-Amercian guarantee in the Middle East almost always fall back, at some point, on the reliability of America as a guarantor should the Soviet Union withdraw from a joint guarantor force. In so doing, they acknowledge the obvious difficulties of a Soviet-American guarantee even while championing it. Moreover, the argument that a unilateral guarantee to Israel could be effectively exploited by the Soviet Union depends very largely upon what is guaranteed and how the guarantee operates. One might just as well argue that an American guarantee, attended by Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and employed to constrain Israel in the use of force, would consolidate America's present position in the area. Then, too, it is significant that proposals for either superpower or multilateral guarantees are singularly vague about the nature and size of guaranteeing forces. One can only infer that these forces would be quite modest. In this particular case, however, modest forces will not do. Is it even remotely plausible to assume, though, that the superpowers would establish a substantial joint force, or that the middle and small states would bear the brunt of such a force?

4 It may be argued, however, that in the event of serious Arab violation of an agreement we could credibly threaten sanctions by proxy, that is, through Israel. If this is true, our dependent remains the principal guarantor—our guarantor as well as its own—for Arab fidelity to agreements over which we have presided. There is some merit to this argument. But its limitations are clear. We may be counted upon to be extremely loath ever seriously to consider invoking our sanction by proxy, if only for the reason that to do so would mean the effective end of the new policy. Then, too, the “unleashing” of Israel—for that is how it would be seen in the eyes of the Arabs and, very likely, of most of the world—raises for Washington the specter of an oil embargo with its incalculable consequences for American interests.

5 It is of course assumed here that the nuclear forces of both sides would be second-strike forces and that the technical nature of the force structures would not be such as to generate a new, and compelling, instability. Many observers are skeptical of the possibilities of developing second-strike forces which are relatively invulnerable to attack and for this reason insist that the introduction of nuclear weapons in the Middle East conflict will have a destabilizing effect. This skepticism overlooks the considerable evolution in weapons and the means of protecting them that has occurred since the 1950's. Missiles may be dispersed and concealed; aircraft may be specially sheltered and protected. Weapons systems may be made mobile, etc. There are all sorts of possibilities for the development of second-strikes forces today. There will be even more in the years ahead. Moreover, stability need not rest on the certainty that nuclear forces will survive a first strike. A substantial probability of survival is quite enough.


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