Can these men be trusted with nuclear weapons?

Red button anxiety after Gaza.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett

Despite its official state policy of shrouding the topic in secrecy, everyone has known for some time that Israel is a nuclear nation.

According to a recent estimate it possesses at least 80 nuclear weapons. Some counts suggest a number as high as 200. This arsenal is a radioactive ghost haunting political relations in the Middle East, and now, as we come to terms with the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Gaza, it’s time to exorcise it by talking openly about what Israel’s nuclear monopoly means for the region and the geopolitical stability of the world.

While we have been watching Israel hit Gaza with the type of relentless airstrikes and shelling that led to the horror of Shujai’iya, death in United Nations schools and the razing of entire neighborhoods, Iran has been playing a game of nuclear chess with world superpowers. Though not officially at the chessboard, Israel is the unnamed player in the game — it has made it very clear that it would view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat and act accordingly were the Islamic republic to acquire a nuclear warhead or reach breakout capacity.

Israel’s stance here carries a serious threat. They have declared repeatedly that they would attack Iran with a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities if diplomacy failed to ensure that Iran would never weaponize its nuclear program. Israel has conducted such strikes in the past: in 2007 they took out a partially constructed nuclear reactor in Syria; in 1981 they bombed the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is run only for civilian purposes, but Israel is not convinced. They are watching Iran carefully. All the parties involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran — the United States included — are afraid that Israel will act unilaterally again and attack Iran before diplomatic measures can defuse the situation. They are right to be afraid. There is a high probability that such an attack would cause the type of geopolitical fallout and shearing off into sides that starts World Wars.

Imagine that four months from now the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States fail. Israel does what it has threatened to do and destroys Iran’s nuclear facilities with a series of tactical air strikes. Iran retaliates by leveling Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona with a barrage of long-range ballistic missiles. It starts firing rockets at Sderot, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. Israel mobilizes its air force. Iran mobilizes its army. Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards call for an invasion. Israel asks for the United States to intervene but Obama opts for diplomacy. Israel faces a viable existential threat. Prime Minister Netanyahu and cabinet ministers like Lieberman and Bennett consider the nuclear option as a way of avoiding an all out air and ground war. In the pressure of this moment, can the Israeli leadership be trusted to pause before pushing the button?

Cautionary klaxon alarms should be sounding. Israel’s recent assault on Gaza shows that Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership have very little restraint when they feel their nation is under threat. Reports of unconventional weapon use (DIME, flechette and white phosphorous munitions) by the Israelis during their operations in Gaza cast further doubt on their ability to exercise self-control. The grievously high loss of civilian life in Gaza over the last few weeks also shows that Israel has scant concern for collateral damage when it has decided to eliminate an enemy. Then there are the deeply distressing voices within Israel that have alluded to a nuclear strike on Gaza in past conflicts.

This is why we can not rely on the chance that our generation’s most dangerous game of nuclear chess will have precisely the right outcome. It will be too late to do anything if the game finishes badly.

In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel “must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II. Then, too, the occupation of the country was unnecessary.” Critics and commentators interpreted this remark as a reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, where the nuclear hellfire of the Americans forced the Japanese to capitulate and saved the Americans from staging a military invasion and occupation of the country. Later in 2009, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said outright that Lieberman had “threatened to use nuclear weapons against Gaza.”

Lieberman’s comment set a precedent for similar pronouncements. In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Gilad Sharon (the son of the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) had an article published in the Jerusalem Post which argued for a “decisive conclusion” to Israel’s assault on Gaza. In the article he stated: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima — the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.” Gilad Sharon’s article was liked 586 times by Jerusalem Post readers and tweeted 159 times.

Israel’s current economic minister Naftali Bennett is one of the most vocal proponents of a pre-emptive strike on Iran if it reaches anywhere near nuclear breakout capacity. Bennett is a man irresponsible enough to suggest repeatedly that any deal with Iran that fails to dismantle its nuclear program entirely could lead to a nuclear terrorist attack on New York. He pushed relentlessly within the Israeli government for a total military takeover of the Gaza strip during Operation Protective Edge. Only Lieberman and former deputy defense minister Danny Danon shouted as loud as Bennett to escalate the scale of the invasion. With such men in his cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be allowed to think clearly and act freely if any active Iranian threat to his nation emerges.

Of course, Netanyahu himself may already be primed for attack, with or without Lieberman and Bennett. He displays immense anxiety over a nuclear Iran. To what extent this anxiety will be a radioactive cloud that Netanyahu and his security cabinet can not see past when the critical moment arrives will only be revealed during a moment of extreme geopolitical instability and reactivity—a time when there will no longer be any opportunity for us to influence events.

This is why we can not rely on the chance that our generation’s most dangerous game of nuclear chess will have precisely the right outcome. It will be too late to do anything if the game finishes badly. But the outrage of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza has suddenly made its status as a nuclear power in the Middle East unnerving. Opinions are undergoing a tectonic shift, and global events have opened up the space needed for a mass change in perception. A clearing for action has appeared. There has never been a better moment to apply international pressure to Israel to get them to admit that they have nuclear weapons and sign up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran signed the treaty in 1968. Global safety means we secure Israel’s signature in 2014.


Peter Morelli