Israel’s Nukes Harm US National Interests

Transcript of John J. Mearsheimer’s remarks at the IRmep conference at the International Spy Museum "Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal: Espionage, Opacity and Future" Washington, DC, 7/7/2010

What I want to do is ask four questions, and then answer them.

The first is, "why did Israel develop nuclear weapons to begin within the 1950s and 1960s?"  Second, "does it make sense today for Israel to have a nuclear deterrent?"  Third, "does opacity make good strategic sense for Israel?"  "Does it matter for the United States?" And four, "is it in America’s interest for Israel to have nuclear weapons?"  

Those are the four questions I want to answer.

You want to remember, when I answer those first two questions about why Israel developed nuclear weapons I’m going to approach it from Israel’s point of view.  This will become clear as I go along, but Israel and the United States are separate countries.  And sometimes what’s good for Israel is not good for the United States.

On the question of Israel and nuclear weapons, let me start with a general point.  The reason that states want nuclear weapons in almost all cases is because they are the ultimate deterrent.  They make it almost impossible for an adversary or an opponent to attack your homeland and threaten the survival of your state for the obvious reason that if you have nuclear weapons and your survival is at risk, that’s one clear circumstance under which you’re likely to use those nuclear weapons.  Many people now argue, here in Washington especially, that nuclear weapons have offensive capability, and if Iran were to get nuclear weapons it could use those weapons to dominate the Gulf and establish hegemony in the region.  

This is not a serious argument and of course there are not many serious arguments about Iran that take place here inside the beltway, as you well know.  But the idea that they’re going to use nuclear weapons to dominate the Gulf, it’s a laugher.

It’s also important to understand, that even if you have nuclear weapons, it doesn’t mean other countries won’t attack you.  Again, I’m arguing that if you have nuclear weapons, they won’t attack your homeland and threaten your survival, but you want to remember that in 1973 even though Israel had nuclear weapons and the Syrians and Egyptians understood that Israel had nuclear weapons, those two Arab states did initiate the famous October War, or Yom Kippur War.

So nuclear deterrence has its limits.

I think a powerful case can be made that it made good strategic sense for Israel to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1950s and the 1960s.  Number one because of the strategic environment that they operated in, and number two for historical reasons.  Referring to the strategic environment, at that point in time and again we’re talking about the 1950’s and early 1960’s when this program was set in motion Israel’s conventional force relative to its neighbors was nowhere near as powerful as they now are.  The gap between the Israeli conventional forces and the neighbors’ conventional forces was significant then, but nowhere near as great as it is today.  At the same time both Egypt and Syria for much of that period, had very close relations with the Soviet Union which was supplying them with arms.  And as most of you know, the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel did not get going until 1967.  And I would argue that it was really not until the 1973 war that the special relationship really began to take off.  So relations between the United States and Israel were not very close at the time, the Soviet Union was a key player in the region, and Egypt and Syria were seen as client states of the Soviet Union and were quite formidable adversaries.  I don’t want to overstate the case, nevertheless given that strategic environment and given the history of the Jews, especially in Europe, especially given the fact that the Holocaust was recent history at the time, you could understand full well why the Israelis wanted to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Had I been a national security advisor to David Ben-Gurion, I would have pushed him down the nuclear road, back in the 50s and the 60s.

The question though, and Sasha raised this, is whether it makes sense today for Israel to have a nuclear deterrent.  I think it’s obvious that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would make little sense for Israel to give up its nuclear deterrent.  In fact, you’d never get the Israelis to do that.  

But that’s not the interesting question.

The interesting question is "what should Israel do if Iran abandons its nuclear enrichment capability and agrees to a comprehensive inspections regime?"  Would it then make sense for Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal?  I think the answer to that question is not open-and-shut.  But I think, on balance, a powerful case could be made or can be made that Israel would be better off abandoning its nuclear deterrent.  

Now why do I say that?

Well, the argument for not giving it up is that they now have the ultimate deterrent.  As you know, all states in the international system worry somewhat about their survival.  The Israelis worry about their survival probably more than any other state in the system for good reasons and bad reasons.  But nevertheless they worry.  And given that they worry, they have the ultimate deterrent; a powerful case can be made that they should not give it up.     But I think there are more powerful arguments on the other side.  

First of all, there is a fundamentally different strategic environment today than existed in the 1950s and 1960s.  And it’s much more favorable from Israel’s point of view.  The Soviet Union, as we all know, has gone away.  And it is not supplying either Egypt or Syria, or anybody in the neighborhood with meaningful conventional fighting force.  Furthermore, Egypt has changed its approach to dealing with Israel and is now effectively a relatively friendly state.   It is not an adversary of Israel like it was it the late 1950s throughout the 1960s as well.  If you look at what’s happened with regard to the special relationship it’s blossomed since 1973 and the United States and Israel today are basically joined at the hip.

That wasn’t the case back then.  And related to that the United States has supplied Israel with the most up-to-date conventional weaponry in its arsenal.  And as a result of that fact combined with the fact that the Soviets are no longer supplying the Egyptians and the Syrians the gap between the Israelis on one hand and the Arab states on the other in terms of conventional weaponry is just enormous.  

No state in its right mind would pick a fight with the Israelis.  And every time it looks like the Syrians and the Israelis might get into a fight, the Syrians are backtracking like the best quarterback or safety in the NFL.  It’s really quite amazing.  Nobody in their right mind would pick a fight with the IDF.  So I think in terms of the strategic environment, conventional deterrence alone takes care of the Israelis.

The other important reason for thinking about getting rid of Israeli nuclear weapons is to discourage or prevent proliferation in the region.  I think the Israelis understand full well that there’s significant pressure on Iran, there will eventually be significant pressure in Iraq, once we get out of there, especially if Iran develops nuclear weapons of its own, to get nuclear weapons.  You can posit plausible scenarios as to how nuclear proliferation occurs in the Middle East over the next fifty years.

And I think it’s clearly not in Israel’s interest to have nuclear proliferation.  I think given Israel’s conventional superiority number one, number two given its close relationship with the United States that’s not likely to change anytime soon. And given the dangers associated with proliferation, I think the Israelis would be better off in a nuclear-free Middle East.  

Of course, that’s not going to happen.  

The Israeli government is so far to the right and dominated by hard-liners to the point that’s virtually unthinkable in the near future. But nevertheless, I think a good case could be made for pursuing that policy.  Which brings me to the third question, the matter of opacity.  

Does opacity make sense for Israel?  

And to a lesser extent, what are the consequences of opacity for the United States?  Just let me say what I think we mean when we say "opacity."  This is where a country has nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t admit explicitly that it has those weapons, and it even hints that it might not have them.  Of course, this is what the Israelis have been doing for decades now.  My first question about opacity is who are you fooling? 

A very important question.  Who’s being fooled here?  It seems quite clear to me that the elites in the Arab world, the elites in Europe, and the elites in the United States and by elites I mean policy-makers, experts, and even the informed public (people who pay attention to this when they go home at night and read the newspaper, and read books and magazines) none of them are being fooled.  We all kind of figured out a long time ago that Israel has nuclear weapons. And I’ve never talked to any intelligent person who pays careful attention to Middle East politics who tried to pretend to me that Israel doesn’t have nuclear weapons.  Indeed, we all talk as if Israel had nuclear weapons.  And, in fact, if you think about it, because the Israelis acquired those weapons for deterrence purposes, want policymakers in the Arab world, and want the Americans, and wanted the Soviets during the cold war, to know that they had nuclear weapons.

In fact I think they wanted them to be quite certain they had them, and to let them know that they would use them, because that’s what makes deterrence work.  So I don’t think you were fooling the experts. Now one might argue that one of the advantages of this is just to create a little ambiguity in the minds of elites, and then in a crisis you drag out the weapons and make it clear that you would use them.  One could argue that this is what happened in the 1973 war.  But that’s not a very smart strategy, because if you’re the Israelis, you want to avoid crisis, you want to avoid the 1973 war.  So you want to make it pretty clear if not very clear to the elites that you have these things. And they’ve done that.

So again, the question is "who are they fooling?"

One might argue that this policy is good for allowing the elites in the Arab and Islamic world especially in countries like Egypt, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to resist pressure from the public.  Because when people down below begin to holler about the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons, the elites can say "it’s not clear that they have nuclear weapons."  So what this policy of opacity provides is "plausible deniability."  I guess you can make that argument.  It was probably somewhat effective in the past.  But I don’t think it’s very effective now, in large part because of the Internet.

I’m a big believer that the Internet has been a game changer.

If you rely on the mainstream media and mainstream publications for your information, you’re not going to learn very much about Middle East politics when it comes to Israel.  But we have all these websites, blogs, and we have the Israeli press, and so forth and so on, we can just learn all sorts of things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Middle East politics more generally, that you can’t learn in the mainstream media here in the United States.  And the end result is that I think the cat is out of the bag on this one, and everyone kind of understands it.  So the Israelis can pretend, and we can pretend, that it doesn’t matter, and that Israel doesn’t have nuclear weapons.

But I don’t think it buys you much.  

Now, to pick up on Grant’s comments.  He indicated that it may help in the United States, because it allows policymakers in Washington to pretend that Israel doesn’t have nuclear weapons.  And he was complaining about the fact that this policy of opacity undermines accountability.

I don’t think so. 

I don’t think it matters much at all, because there’s no accountability for Israel on any issue.   You don’t need opacity.  If I went to the Middle East, and visited Israel, and I was killed, somebody shot me, do you think there would be any accountability?  Seriously.  If any of you went to the Middle East and were killed, do you think there would be accountability? There wouldn’t be.  This is how outrageous this situation is.  Just think about the [USS] Liberty, think about Rachel Corrie, think about this Turkish-American who was just killed on the flotilla.  

There’s no accountability.  

The Israelis can do almost anything and get away with it.  So the idea that opacity matters, I don’t think so.  The lobby believes it can finesse any issue.  They’ve never seen an issue that they can’t finesse. Look at what they did with the Goldstone report.  I’ve followed this issue very carefully, and he asked me to put my strategist’s hat on. 

As many of you know, I went to West Point, I was in the military for ten years, I cut my teeth in this business by doing military matters.  The first time I ever went to Israel was to study what happened in the ’67, ’73, 1956, 1953 wars.  I can tell you in great detail how those wars were fought.  I followed what happened in Gaza in 2008-2009.  Judge Goldstone, if anything, was too soft on the Israelis.  Anybody who followed this carefully know that he basically got the story right to the extent that he was wrong, he should have been tougher on the Israelis.  But you saw what happened to Judge Goldstone.  

This is how powerful the lobby is.  

Alan Dershowitz was correct when he said that "Jews of my generation created what is, perhaps, the most powerful interest group in the history of democracy."  An enormously powerful interest group, so I don’t think you want to put too much emphasis on opacity.  It matters on the margins, or it mattered once on the margins, but not very much.  Which brings me to the final subject.  

Is it in America’s interest for Israel to have nuclear weapons?

Now, it’s very important to understand that Israel’s supporters in the United States go to enormous lengths to make the argument that there’s no difference between Israel’s interests and America’s interests.  Because once you open the possibility that the two countries have different interests, then they’re forced to choose, in a very public fashion.  And, of course, they’ll invariably choose Israel’s interests over America’s interests and that is not something that they want to have happen in public.  This is why they’ve gone to great lengths to create this situation where it looks like Obama and Netanyahu have patched up all their differences, to the extent that there are differences they’ll be handled behind closed doors because they don’t want those differences out in the open.  

But, of course, as we all know no two countries have the same interests.  

This has nothing to do with Israel, or the United States.  It’s just the way international politics works.  There are going to be cases where it’s in Israel’s interest to do certain things, and not in America’s interest to allow Israel to do those things.  And there is no issue I believe­where that is clearer than the nuclear issue.  As I made clear in my opening set of remarks, I do believe it was in Israel’s interest to develop nuclear weapons.  By the way, I think it’s in Iran’s interest today to develop nuclear weapons.  If I was president Ahmadinejad’s national security advisor, and he asked me what to do, I would tell him to acquire a nuclear deterrent.  Is that in America’s interest?

Absolutely not. 

Iran and the United States have different interests.  No two states have the same interests.  I believe it was in Israel’s interest to acquire nuclear weapons. I’m hardly surprised at all of the activities the Israelis engaged in, that Grant so eloquently described, that’s the way states behave in the international system, and they go to great lengths to disguise their behavior.  

But it was not then in America’s interest for Israel to acquire nuclear weapons and it is not in our interest now for Israel to have nuclear weapons.  This is why, as Grant described, President Kennedy went to great lengths to prevent Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons and to get them to join the NPT.  And president Johnson a very, very interesting figure on this whole subject of US-Israeli relations­president Johnson may have been willing to give Israel a green light, or an orange light, however you want to characterize it but as we can see from Grant’s comments and from reading the literature on this that down below all sorts of people were protesting.  All sorts of people in the national security establishment wanted to go to great lengths to stop Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons.  

Because again it wasn’t in our interest. 

And the two best examples that show how it’s not in our national interest are what happened during the 1973 war.  During that conflict, the Israelis looked like they were in dire straits for the first few days.  And they wanted the United States to immediately resupply them.  The Nixon administration said "no" because the Nixon administration judged quite correctly that once the Israelis recovered from the initial surprise that they would do very well. And therefore the US government did not what to give the Israelis at that point more arms.  The Israelis then threatened to pull the nuclear weapons out, and began talking about using nuclear weapons. That, not surprisingly, spooked the Americans who immediately began resupplying the Israelis even though they did not what to do that.  

That’s a form of nuclear coercion.   

From Israel’s point of view this was smart policy from our point of view it was not good. The second example is what’s been going on with regards to nuclear proliferation.  It’s quite clear, and you see this from the recent review conference, that the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons again we’re not fooling anybody with this opaque rhetoric the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons is making it very difficult for the United States to stem the tide on proliferation and to move to a nuclear free Middle East.  So again, it’s just not in our interest and it would have been much better if from our point of view we could have prevented Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons.  

Let me just conclude with a few words on where this situation is headed.  

I actually believe the situation is going to get much worse over time.  I believe that we’re not going to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.  I believe that talk of a two-state solution and all this talk about moving from "proximity talks" to "direct talks " is a charade.  I find it hard to believe that people in this town take this discussion seriously. I think, at this point in time, that you’re going to get a "Greater Israel," and it either is, or is going to be, an apartheid state.  It is going to cause us enormous problems, in the Middle East, or in the Arab and Islamic world.  It is going to continue to keep relations between Israel and its neighbors in a troublesome state. 

On the proliferation front, I would not be surprised if Iran and other countries continue to move down the nuclear road.  You already see the Jordanians expressing an interest in developing a signification nuclear enrichment capability.  It would be interesting to see if Turkey does.  As I said before, I think Iraq will want nuclear weapons if Iran has nuclear weapons.  It would be foolish not to from an Iraqi point of view.  A Middle East where more than one state has nuclear weapons makes me very, very nervous.

What of course all of this is going to point to is the fact that America’s interests and Israel’s interests are going to continue to diverge.    And the end result of that, back here in the United States, is that the lobby is going to have to work overtime to cover that up and make it look like everything is hunky-dory  when in fact it’s not. And that has all sorts of negative consequences for domestic politics.

So I think things are very bad now but I’m sad to say they’re only going to get worse.

Author: John Mearsheimer

John J. Mearsheimer, PhD, is an American professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. More recently Mearsheimer has attracted attention for co-authoring and publishing the article The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which was subsequently published as a book.