Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 13:52 | SYDNEY

Israel: Defence beats offence


Sam Roggeveen


18 April 2008 14:48

Two interesting and related developments on Israel's strategic future in recent days: first, the US has agreed to connect Israel to its ballistic missile early warning network. Israel already has probably the most comprehensive missile defence system of any country in the world, but when it comes to shooting down high-speed ballistic missiles being fired from potentially just a few hundred kilometres away, fast and reliable data is crucial, so this agreement should help secure Israel further against missile threats.

Second, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made the blunt declaration that Iran 'will not have nuclear capability'. Israel's policy of supporting international efforts to halt Tehran's nuclear program has not changed, but this statement does again suggest Israel will take unilateral action should those efforts fail.

But what would failure of the diplomatic process look like? It seems unlikely to ever be so clear-cut as to make it easy for Israeli leaders to say that now is the time for a military strike — there can always be room for one more diplomatic initiative. That in part explains Israel's continuing emphasis on missile defence. The political and strategic winds may never blow just right for Israel to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, in which case Israel will have to rely on deterrence and defence.

But as I've argued before on The Interpreter, a continued emphasis on nuclear deterrence may actually accelerate the very future that Israel most wants to avoid. Israel's development of nuclear weapons capability was understandable in the 1950s and probably crucial to Israel's survival until at least the 1970s. But Israel has massive military superiority over its adversaries and is not at threat of being overrun by Arab tank divisions. Only nuclear weapons could really put Israel at existential threat. To avoid this fate, Israel should think about denuclearising itself, not just its adversaries.

Although it's hard to imagine the US favouring such an agenda for Israel, they may inadvertantly be promoting it through this move to draw Israel into its missile early warning network. A globalised, US-led ballistic missile defence architecture could develop into a common good that will reduce reliance on nuclear weapons worldwide.