Nuclear Options: When is a Pre-emptive Nuclear Strike Moral?

Israel’s leading military ethicist, Moshe Halbertal, argues that in some cases a pre-emptive nuclear strike might be moral while nuclear retaliation might not

By Ron Rosenbaum|February 22, 2011 7:00 AM

At some point in the near or not-distant future, the State of Israel will face the question of nuclear retaliation. Consider the following not unlikely scenario: A nuclear-armed nation, or nuclear-armed terrorists, detonate enough nuclear devices to destroy utterly the land of Israel and most of its people, rendering it uninhabitable.

Israel has been called “a one-bomb state” in that a single megaton-sized bomb detonated in Tel Aviv could accomplish such destruction. Many prefer to live in denial of this possibility. The people of Israel don’t have this luxury. If you don’t think they’ve war-gamed this possibility, think again. Many focus on Iran’s potential nuclear weaponry and the statements of Iranian leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that Iran would “welcome” a nuclear exchange with Israel because while it might lose 15 million people there would be a billion and half Muslims left on earth and no Jews in what was once Israel. But there is less focus on the current reality of the so called “Islamic bomb”—Pakistan’s 60 to 100 nukes, now ever more vulnerable to takeover by Taliban al-Qaida sympathizers. Seizable by or salable to terrorists.

What happens if it happens? A “second Holocaust”? One thing we can be fairly certain of: Israel will have the capacity for nuclear retaliation. Israel has purchased and put into operation at least three German-manufactured (!) long-range “Dolphin class” submarines, capable of being fitted out with nuclear weapons.

There has been all sorts of information and disinformation about the disposition of these subs, but most analysts seem to believe they are cruising the waters of the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, within range of the most likely targets. And, many believe, they are armed with nuclear-tipped Harpoon cruise missiles. Ready to retaliate.

This is complicated by the potential of an attack from a terrorist “bomb with no return address,” smuggled across any one of three borders, or lobbed in from off shore. Whom to retaliate against? And is retaliation moral under Jewish law?

“How could they not?” is one’s first response. But what is the point, what is the morality of killing 15 or 50 million people in order to carry out a threat that failed to deter an attack? The most famous Biblical verses are divided: “An eye for an eye,” says one but “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” says the other.

What have the submarine commanders been ordered to do if they are cut off from the chain of command in what is left of the State of Israel? Will it be up to them in any case? Nations that rely on submarine nuclear capacity as their last line of nuclear deterrence have all devised “workarounds” should their subs be cut off from home base by a decapacitating attack. The United Kingdom, for instance, has a “Letter of Last Resort [1]” locked in a safe in their subs’ control rooms. It purportedly gives the prime minister’s orders about retaliation if he’s cut off. In other words, although they may have orders not to fire without orders, if the ones who give the orders are dead or incommunicado the submarine commanders must have the power to launch in order to give the threat of retaliation “credibility.”

I wouldn’t want that power, that decision in my hands. But what if it were in your hands? Put yourself in the place of an Israeli submarine commander knowing his family has likely perished in the Holy Land conflagration. How many missiles would you launch, how many—and who—would you decide to kill? Is there a “just” number, a “proportional” number? Is any number just? Would it be done to prevent a third holocaust? On abstract “just punishment” grounds?

In the course of writing How the End Begins [2], which deals with the moral dimensions of questions like nuclear retaliation, I sought to find the state of Jewish wisdom about these questions among the best, most learned Jewish thinkers on this question.

It wasn’t easy.


What is the moral status of such retaliation? A friend familiar with the faculty of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary offered to put me in contact with three of the sages there most familiar with such difficult ethical questions such as justice and retaliation and the history of Jewish thinking on the question.

I asked them, separately, to put themselves in the place of a Jewish submarine commander who learns of a nuclear Holocaust in Israel, and, cut off from his home base chain of command by the destruction of land-based communications links, must decide for himself what is the just response. What, in effect, would the sages’ Letter of Last Resort say?

The results played out almost as in some biblical story, or perhaps as if I were the wicked son asking the wicked question at the Passover feast. First one sage, then a second, pronounced himself unwilling to confront the question. Almost as if it were an affront to have been asked. One just wouldn’t comment, the other claimed a lack of expertise. I hate to say it, but I had a feeling they were afraid to commit themselves. These are literally explosive issues. Better to stay in their safe tenured little patch of academia than risk saying something on urgent but controversial questions where their purported wisdom might help ordinary people wrestle with huge life-or-death decisions. Academic timidity, don’t get me started. These are the ethics of genocide and you have nothing to say?

The third sage at least left me with a memorable phrase that I felt justified the quest. When I asked him my forbidden question about the morality of retaliation, particularly in the event of second Holocaust in Israel, he said, “You’re asking something new under the sun.”

“Something new under the sun.” He understood! These are not questions that have had to be asked before the nuclear age. Perhaps the principles applied are older but the alternatives, genocide on each side of the question—this is “something new under the sun.”

And so you’re left with me to think about it and to ask you to think about it. One thing I want to think about is the possibility of nonretaliation. No striking back. Not necessarily to advocate it, but to describe my encounter with an advocate of it.

One of the saddest, most provocative things I’ve heard about the history of the Jews is the notion that while Christians preach turning the other cheek Jews are the ones who, through history, have actually done it. Berel Lang, one of the few scholars unafraid to face such questions, wrote an essay for a Jewish quarterly that he called “Why No Retaliation?” for Hitler’s Holocaust. Some Jews did attempt postwar to poison a few German POWs, a haphazard scheme that didn’t result in many deaths. There were virtually no Jews left in Europe to do any retaliating, and even those who tried to return to their old homes and might have been in a position to do so were forced to flee again by pogroms throughout Eastern Europe.

So it was more by default, not really by choice, that there was no retaliation. There was justice of a limited sort, the Nazi hunting of Simon Wiesenthal for instance. But no retaliation, just memory.

Next time, should there be a second Holocaust, Jews will have the means to inflict massive retaliation, they will have the choice at least, it will be by choice and that choice may well come down to a submarine commander. The last resort of choice.

Should he retaliate, regardless of his orders? Several years ago I gave a talk to a seminar sponsored by the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism about the idea of a second Holocaust and the controversy over it. And, at the end, the issue of retaliation came up.

One speaker addressed the question of whether the Israelis had provided for it and shielded their retaliatory forces. He told the story of the Isaiah scroll in Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, the repository for the most ancient and revered manuscripts of the Jewish people, and how the Isaiah scroll, after a brief period of being on display in a super-hardened glass case, retracts deep, deep into the earth, into the titanium-steel-alloy silo you might say, that reaches far beneath the surface and is said to be able to survive a direct nuclear blast. They care about books there. You can’t use your library card to get the Isaiah scroll. The point he was making was that the Israelis guarded their retaliatory capacity with the same care as the Isaiah scroll and that was saying something.

Until the very end of the question-and-comment period no voices had been raised to question the fact that there would or should be retaliation. Then a grad-student-looking fellow at the back of the room spoke up and in a halting, tentative voice framed his question this way:

What if the Jews didn’t retaliate at all? What if they, the survivors, somehow declared there would be nothing to be gained, only a preponderance of innocent lives to be lost among the guilty perpetrators? Wouldn’t the Jews—however few were left alive—be honored then and for centuries afterward for this forbearance?

Interesting choice of words: honored. I thought of Falstaff: “What is honor?”

Before I could answer, a fellow on the side of the room spoke up and said such talk, or a public airing of it, would be dangerous because it would undermine the credibility of Israel’s deterrent, which depended on the certainty of retaliation. Not that anyone in that room was going to be giving the order.

It just so happened that on July 3, 2009, the Jerusalem Post printed a dispatch about one of Israel’s nuclear-capable Dolphin-class submarines. Israeli papers are not allowed to acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons by the state and so the dispatch was muted, although the reverberations must have been pronounced for those in the know about the role of the Dolphins as the Israeli launchers of last resort. “After a long hiatus the Israeli Navy has returned to sail through the Suez Canal,” the story said, “recently sending one of its advanced Dolphin class submarines through the waterway to participate in naval maneuvers off the Eilat Coast in the Red Sea.”

A message was being sent. A message about retaliation. And the means to do it. But what about the will to do it, the morality of the choice? And so as I write this a submarine that could start (or end) World War III is cruising into range. And no one knows what the commander thinks about the consequences of a second Holocaust. Or whether he carries a Letter of Last Resort.

It took me a while, but at last I found someone who was an authority on the ethics of the question and the military implications there of someone who was willing to talk about what was “new under the sun.” And for this, I am grateful to Arnie Eisen [4], head of the Jewish Theological Seminary. After hearing me complain about the timidity of his sages, he helped put me in touch with Moshe Halbertal.

The Determinate Versus the Immeasurable

“Do you think it’s wrong to write about this?” I asked Moshe Halbertal toward the end of our talk.

We were sitting in his office at NYU Law School, where he spends half the academic year teaching ethics and the international law of war; the other half he does the same at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is one of the most widely respected thinkers on the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern warfare. He was influenced by the writings of Michael Walzer, the author of the influential book Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. And Halbertal has gotten involved in a way that is more difficult and perilous than academic: He has co-written the code of ethics for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces.

He admitted he had not written about how just-war ethics apply to nuclear war questions. He admitted he felt he was entering into a “no-man’s-land … beyond the law.” Occasionally he would say variations of “but you can’t say that” after he’d said it. Which is why I asked him if I should write about it.

We had been speaking as well about his shocking-at-first notion that a preemptive nuclear strike might be a morally justifiable act under certain restrictive conditions involving “thresholds” and “supreme emergencies.” We had been talking about submarines, the retaliatory weapons of last resort. And so I found myself asking in a guilty way whether deterrence was—or should be—a bluff, something you threaten but aren’t allowed to carry out, as Walzer believes. But of course even to discuss it is to make an attack by a foe more tempting should he think the threat might be a bluff.

“Wrong to write about it?” I asked. “Not that anyone is going to pay attention,” I hastily added, not wishing to risk being held responsible for a nuclear cataclysm, “but—”

“No, not at all, you should, you should definitely—”

“No one in Iran is going to say—”

“No I don’t think you’ll break the  … ”

He trailed off but I think he meant to break the veil of secrecy or the shroud of ambiguity that cloaks Israeli nuclear war plans, even nuclear weapons possession.

Halbertal was just the person I had been seeking to talk to, a much admired Talmudic scholar most well known among the Talmudists for his book on idolatry who had brought his immersion in the wisdom of the sages to contemporary military ethics. He is deeply knowledgeable about the whole tradition of just-war theory but willing to acknowledge that nuclear weapons presented new challenges to ancient conundrums. Something new under the sun.

He is a modest shirt-sleeved 50ish guy who says dramatic things in an offhand undramatic manner and is frank about his hesitancy, uncertainty, and agony on certain matters. He comes across as a someone of genuine humility who admits to being tentative. He’s a serious and courageous man.

I began by asking Halbertal to describe how his military experience led him to his current position. He told me that he had enlisted in the Israeli army and served as an artillery spotter. In other words his task was both military and ethical: to make distinctions—often difficult and immensely consequential ones—between civilian and military targets in the grim struggles of “irregular warfare,” where decisions were not always possible with precision. The artillery spotter is a battlefield ethicist who puts his life on the line getting to the forward-most position for the sake of saving innocents. A position where to make the wrong choice is to risk killing innocents.

He told me our conversation was his “first extended” one on something he had been thinking about but had not addressed formally. “All this has become unfortunately very real,” he said. He’s talking about Iran and what Israel will have to do about it. Ten days after Halbertal and I spoke the following report appeared on a web site called DEBKAfile [6] known to be a conduit for Israeli information and disinformation. It’s not clear which this was, but since Israel does not officially admit to having nuclear weapons, it was remarkably detailed technically. That doesn’t mean the voyage described wasn’t manufactured out of whole cloth. But if so it was designed to paint a picture for the Iranians of a voyage that could take place:

04 Oct. [2009] Western naval sources report that Israel’s German-made Dolphin submarines have been heavily modified: its torpedo tubes enlarged to accommodate missiles, new electronics installed and its fuel capacity expanded to keep the vessel at sea for 50 days without refueling. Eight years after receiving the first three Dolphin subs from Germany and two more last month, naval sources rate them the most modern non-nuclear [-powered] subs in any world navy. Israel has equipped the new Dolphin-class subs with homemade 1,500-km range cruise missiles carrying 200 kiloton nuclear warheads and 135-km range US-made Harpoon missiles also fitted with nuclear warheads. These missiles, fired through the newly-enlarged 650mm-26-inch tubes, can reach Iranian coastal targets including its nuclear sites as well as naval, port and Revolutionary Guards facilities. The Dolphins’ expanded fuel tanks enable them to cover distances of up to 10,000 kilometers from their Mediterranean home port (instead of 8,000 kilometers heretofore) and spend more time—up to 50 days—off the Iranian coast.

DEBKAfile’s military sources note: “Their presence outside Israeli waters is a powerful deterrent to any surprise nuclear or conventional attack, endowing Israel with an instantaneous second-strike nuclear capability.”

It seems likely someone in the Israeli high command authorized this leak, wanted to paint a detailed picture for most likely the Iranians—and for anyone else who thought a nuclear strike on Israel would go unpunished. There’s no point in Israel having five German-made submarines unless it were for the purpose of having an invulnerable second-strike retaliatory capacity. I certainly think DEBKAfile’s sources wanted its readers in Islamic capitals to believe that nuclear retaliation was inevitable.

I asked Halbertal, “Does nuclear war change traditional just-war thinking?”

“Yes,” he said. But added: “I must say I’m in agony about it. I don’t have a clear answer to it. I’ll tell you what’s my dilemma. I don’t think that ‘Supreme Emergency’ is a reason for intentional killing of all civilians. I don’t think you are allowed to do it, morally.”

“Now, ‘Supreme Emergency’—that’s Walzer’s term, right?” I asked him.


“And when you say ‘intentional killing of all civilians’ with regard to nuclear war that would mean either a preemptive or a retaliatory strike?”

“Right, but leave nuclear war aside for a moment and look at the difficulty of ‘supreme emergency.’ ”

“Supreme Emergency” is a phrase adopted by Walzer from a 1939 speech by Winston Churchill in an attempt to reconcile just-war ethics with the killing of innocent civilians entailed in the nighttime bombing of German cities. Halbertal began contextualizing his views on nuclear war by tracing the differences he and Walzer have over what recent historical events qualify as supreme emergencies.

He points out that Walzer first used the term “supreme emergency” when discussing Churchill’s decision to bomb German cities and the civilians who lived in them in 1940.

“Here was a supreme emergency,” Walzer writes, referring to the period after the fall of France and before the entrance of the United States in the war, “when the victory of Hitler’s evil seemed assured, where one might well be required to override the rights of innocent people and shatter the [Geneva] war convention” that requires distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants.

Walzer concedes that its morality is not a sure bet: “Should I wager this determinate crime against immeasurable evil [of a Nazi victory]?,” he asks. His answer: yes.

Walzer’s use of the word “wager” is almost shocking in its lack of conviction. It’s just a bet that bombing civilians might be the right thing to do when weighing the determinate against the immeasurable. He chooses his words carefully and tentatively because he knows he’s treading on a minefield. This is the kind of wager in which one just can’t calculate odds. Only in hindsight, but not when the choice is made. Then one must trust in “moral luck.”

Halbertal too is troubled by the fact that “supreme emergency” is a subjective judgment. And there are some moral minefields he’s not willing to follow Walzer into, including Churchill’s decision to bomb those German cities in 1940. It’s not an easy question. In hindsight one can understand the rationale for Churchill’s orders even if one does not accept it: Hitler’s victory in France in 1940 and the paucity of British defenses at the time made it seem like the conquest of England would be short work and would subjugate the entire continent to a thousand-year reign of evil. Does this imminent threat not count as a supreme emergency, even if the purpose of bombing German cities is morale-building mass slaughter? Even if it’s based on weighing the immeasurable more heavily than the determinate? Could England have survived without it? Churchill didn’t think so but he couldn’t know.

“No, you cannot save your life at the expense of actual targeting of innocent people,” Halbertal said, emphatically disagreeing with Walzer—and Churchill.

This is the unshakable foundation of Halbertal’s thinking: “You cannot save your life at the expense of actual targeting of innocent people.” But his thinking can lead to some surprising conclusions such as his argument that in certain cases a preemptive nuclear strike can be moral while retaliation after being struck by nuclear weapons cannot be.

He accepts the supreme-emergency exception but locates the moral problem, the one that may be impossible to find an objective answer to, in the “threshold” issue. What is the threshold of a supreme emergency? What makes an ordinary emergency so supreme, so urgent that it justifies lowering the threshold of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants? Is it timing, the imminence of threat, or is the magnitude of threat or some algorithm that links them? Alas, problems of morals are not soluble the way problems of mathematics are.

“Now when it comes to nuclear weapons,” Halbertal said, “that’s where I think [Walzer] is rightfully very critical of the way nuclear weapons were used to end the Second World War.” He’s talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “He’s right that there could have been a cease-fire, or a treaty without actually the absolute surrender of Japan.” What Walzer says is that “to use the atomic bomb without even attempting such an experiment was a double crime.”

Halbertal takes issue as well with another argument in favor of dropping the bomb—that it would save the lives of soldiers who would otherwise die in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. “Something [Walzer] doesn’t raise, but I don’t think he’d approve of, is the argument that you save even a hundred or two hundred thousand soldiers of our stripe by absolute indiscriminate intent of killing Japanese children.”

Actually most estimates are higher for U.S. invasion casualties. (And those numbers don’t include the million or more Japanese civilians who might die in an invasion, five times more than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Note though, the uncompromising language of his description of the indiscriminate killing of the innocent in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—“absolute indiscriminate intent of killing Japanese children.”

It wasn’t really the main intent, to kill children, but it was the effect. And Halbertal’s way of thinking about these things demands that states take responsibility for the effect as well as the intent of their acts—as if the effects were included in the intent.

So it didn’t entirely surprise me when he said, “So when we come to nuclear war things are a little bit changed. Now when it comes to strategic deterrence, you might threaten it as a strategic thing, that’s fine as long as you’re not going to use it—or then you’re going to have an esoteric morality for strategic reasons.”

An “esoteric morality?” I asked him.

“You construct the principle where you say ‘Well I’m not going to use these weapons [to retaliate] because I’m not going to save my life by killing innocent people, but I shouldn’t tell it to the enemy because this [the threat of use] is the only thing that would protect me.’ ”

“Shouldn’t tell it to the enemy”? Isn’t he doing just that? Not really: He’s not an official representative of the Israeli government. He says he’s not been involved in official discussions of nuclear ethics. And yet he’s not entirely unofficial. He did, after all, co-author the IDF code of ethics and it is the IDF, the Israeli military command, that controls the nuclear weapons capacity everyone knows they have, although they won’t admit it because of nuclear ambiguity.

So he is casting ambiguity on ambiguity? A veil over a veil? A fence around a fence? The entire notion of an “esoteric strategy”—the idea that secretly, esoterically, Israel doesn’t plan to retaliate, at least as Halbertal defines “esoteric strategy” here—something I’ve been reading reference to for decades (recall Thomas Schelling’s parenthetical remark, “Why retaliate once you are wiped out?”) seems more of a construct to make nuclear ethicists feel comfortable with allowing the morality of threatening deterrence without having to weigh as heavily the likelihood that the deterrent threat would be carried out.

The response of the British Ministry of Defence to my inquiry about the Letter of Last Resort discussed in an earlier chapter seems to bear on this: There is no ambiguity in what the Ministry of Defence thinks the letter will say. The Ministry of Defence believes it will ensure retaliation should the submarine be cut off by a “bolt from the blue.” The ministry seems to believe the letter removes ambiguity about retaliation when in fact to most it seems to introduce ambiguity. But the official position is certainty. The American missile crewmen I talked to devised the spoon-and-string work-around to be sure they would not be prevented from launching a genocidal retaliatory attack by some crewman turning peacenik.

Of course there has always been, always will be ambiguity. The point is that no enemy can be certain that they will not be obliterated in retaliation for a major strike by those following well-established orders. It’s unlikely a foe contemplating a surprise attack is going to rely on the existence of an esoteric strategy (if there ever was one).

Halbertal’s doctrine, his thinking on these questions, always returns to the principle of distinction—distinction between military and noncombatant casualties of a military operation—and the way nuclear weapons obliterate the distinction. “The principle of distinction has to stay firm even in moments of supreme emergency. I cannot see a world in which you are allowed to actually kill an innocent person intentionally. I cannot see a world where that is allowed.”

“But you must be allowed to threaten it?” I asked him.

“OK, then it must be allowed to threaten to do this in order for the other side not to do the same.”

“And also you must not reveal to the other side that you will not carry out the threat?”

“Exactly, and so with Walzer we talk about this kind of esoteric morality. But, and here, that’s where my doubts begin with Walzer. And it brings me to paradoxical thinking. There is a way in which the aim of a nuclear attack is to destroy the capacity of collective action of the other side.”

I wasn’t sure what he was getting at exactly. But then he made it specific when he dropped what I regard as a kind of bombshell for an ethicist: “allowing” a preemptive nuclear first strike in certain circumstances.

“Are you talking about a retaliatory attack or possibly even preemption?” I asked him.

“Even preemption,” he said.

I found the fact that Halbertal was making an argument in favor of nuclear preemption a little shocking.

I asked him to elaborate, and he said, “Let’s play out the case of Israel because my thinking now is about Israel. There is, I can see that there is a real threat of nuclear attack on Israel if Iran does get nuclear weapons. I think it a serious problem. They talk about the destruction of Israel and also they might well be outsourcing them and giving them to Hezbollah, it’s hard to know what we have here, but it’s very problematic. Now Israel can be wiped out with one or two bombs. It’s very small. You hit its center, you hit Tel Aviv and the area, there’s no Israel.”

Then he adds another somewhat shocking remark: “I am against—strangely enough—I am against retaliation.”

“Really?” It was a remarkably definitive and unexpected declaration coming almost out of context. It was one thing hearing it from a grad student in a Yale seminar room but another from one of the writers of the Israeli military code of ethics.

“Israel is gone,” he said, beginning to elaborate a scenario. “And let’s say we have submarines, and I imagine that we do have, we must have them, strategically, because they [hostile nations] have to have a feeling that we can retaliate even if Israel was destroyed.”

“Right,” I said, wondering where this was leading, which was to a reiteration, almost an incantation.

“I am against retaliation. I don’t see the point in retaliation. But I can see a preventive strike.”

Not that he doesn’t have doubts.

“My doubts about possible preemptive strikes have to do with the following, and I’m saying it after I claim that I am against intentional killing of civilians in emergencies. So I’m working within the two moral boundaries that I have: First of all I am against retaliation, second I am against the collapse of the principle of distinction in supreme emergency.

“And yet I have doubts about a preventive nuclear strike—not whether it would be a good thing or not a good thing”—in other words it can never be a good thing—“but whether it might be necessary and justified.”

I was tempted to say: Wow! I was fascinated following his thought process though horrified at where it seemed to be leading. I remember at this point in the conversation I nervously stopped my tape recorder to make sure I was getting all of this, something that I usually hate to do, then when I started it up I pushed it closer to him. He didn’t seem fazed.

“So the preemption issue is the following,” he said. “There might be a situation in which the only way to prevent a nuclear attack on Israel will be to destroy the Iranian state. By that I mean to destroy its capacity to act like a state. And here it would be a very strange thing to say, but it’s a case almost of a collateral killing of civilians. It’s not aimed at innocent civilians, it’s not Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It might be either aimed at nuclear laboratories, factories, reactors whatever they have. Or the state apparatus that is necessary for ordering and forming such a thing.”

Should such matters even be open for public discussion? Or was this public discussion a kind of warning, a preemptive admonition to those who need to listen up: that Israel’s leading ethicist could find grounds, if not the precise threshold, to justify a preemptive nuclear attack? Don’t give them grounds, don’t approach that threshold. Halbertal, a revered ethicist, giving his blessing however ambiguous or esoteric to a preemptive strike: almost like a mullah blessing a “martyrdom action” in which children will die. Could he have meant it to send an admonitory message, one that might perhaps make such action unnecessary? Perhaps it will just add another layer of ambiguity.

I decided to ask Halbertal about Israel’s nuclear “opacity,” the refusal of Israel to admit officially that it had nuclear weapons. The carefully worded, scarcely plausible statement by the Israel Ministry of Defense that “Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons” into the Middle East. This has often been decoded to mean, at best, a situation in which not all components of Israeli nuclear weapons had been joined together, although readiness to fire was a few bolts and a few minutes away, for an arsenal most estimated at some two hundred warheads ready to “introduced.” Not counting the ones on subs.

One group of Israeli and American nuclear strategists led by Louis René Beres of Purdue, who had formed Project Daniel, a kind of informal extra-governmental Team B for reassessing Israeli nuclear strategy, issued a report in 2007 that argued it was time to end Israeli nuclear ambiguity, that “bringing the bomb out of the basement” would enhance deterrence. Their argument was that declaring Israel’s nuclear capacity would remind the populations of the hostile states surrounding Israel of the consequences of rash acts by their leaders.

Halbertal had what I thought was an important refinement, a middle ground between opacity and full disclosure.

“I think what should be known is that there is a submarine [nuclear] capacity. Because then they know that we will retaliate. I think the problem is they might be tempted to think that nobody will survive to retaliate.”

Notice that he says it’s important “they know that we will retaliate,” even though he opposes retaliation. He seems to be saying, “It’s going to happen whether I like it or not.” It’s almost a fatalistic admission that it will. A feeling similar to the one I have about the U.S. Those missile crewmen will turn the keys.

“I would allow for the preemptive nuclear attack aimed at the capacity for a state to form a nuclear attack, while being also against retaliatory attacks because I don’t see much point. Though this should be secret.”

“This should be secret”—the esoteric strategy of nonretaliation. One he does not say exists but one he favors. It seemed to me his views would make news. I feel it is news: Leading Israeli military ethics adviser calls for disclosure of nuclear capacity. Defends preemption. Opposes retaliation.

Again: Should this be talked about? I’m conflicted. But I feel the case against retaliation has not been discussed openly enough. That the case against retaliation has not been made precisely because of the argument that it must be kept secret, “esoteric,” which has lulled some people into a belief that it’s not going to happen, an attack, then a choice. But it is going to happen, an attack, then a choice. A choice to retaliate or not. I’m in favor of bringing whatever is esoteric out into the open in a case like this.

I asked him if the fact that a nuclear attack on Israel, the one or two bombs that would be necessary for the destruction of Israel, would represent a second Holocaust affected the threshold. Meaning crossing the bright line to nuclear use. He had previously discussed the threshold across which one is in “Supreme Emergency” territory and the ordinary just war restrictions don’t apply.

“Yes. Sure,” he said without hesitation.

“The decision about the threshold is affected [by the secondness of a second Holocaust]? Should the threshold be more clearly defined?”

“Yes. I don’t think we can only think about it in the abstract. It means a particular commitment to Israel growing out of its history, facing a sworn enemy that is using and abusing the Holocaust in a very complex way. [He’s referring to Holocaust denial by would be Holocaust perpetrators in Iran who use the denial as strategic weapon, an excuse to perpetrate a Holocaust.] Yes, it factors in. And it’s not merely emotional, I can see the moral weight.”

“It [that secondness] becomes a strategic fact?”


“When it comes down to the decision: has the threshold been crossed—”

He spoke about past instances in which nuclear use by Israel has been contemplated. “I would be very, very careful with this threshold,” he said. “Very careful. Here is another scenario. This was quite real in 1973. Moshe Dayan had big doubts about what should be played out in 1973.” Halbertal was talking about the Yom Kippur War in October of that year, which began with an Egyptian surprise attack that along with a Syrian attack from the north seemed about to overwhelm the state of Israel. “At least in the eyes of Moshe Dyan, you know, and others in the military and political leadership of Israel, there was a feeling that we are on the verge of collapse. The first few days. Now let’s say that you are on the verge of collapse and you know the Syrian forces are already entering the Galilee and soon taking Haifa. Can you, at last resort, use a nuclear bomb?”

Last resort here—in the 1973 example—means a situation in which the nuclear decision is not one of preemption (too late) or pure retaliation (too soon), but one made in the fog of war, one that crosses the nuclear threshold in the heat of battle, not an opening but a closing act. He is discussing what others, most recently Benny Morris, have reported as well about the opening days of the 1973 war, an actual moment of nuclear decision, much closer than we came in Cuba.

“This is clearly ‘first use’ if not technically preemptive,” Halbertal says. “It’s preempting being completely destroyed, but the preemptive level of the threshold is clearly serious because now we have lost our capacity to defend ourselves.

“And the question is whether it’s justified. Now what we are speaking of here is not really preemption of nuclear attack. But preemption against loss of independence. Loss of the state. If not loss of existence itself, then a homeless people again, perhaps vulnerable to slaughter again.” What a choice.

“An existential threat,” I interposed.

“Right, to the state, to the Zionist project, etc. etc. etc. And I read somewhere that Dayan gave the order to be ready with them [the nukes]. Whether that was the case or not there is a dispute. But it’s a dilemma, a real dilemma.”

He was speaking about then but he was of course speaking about now as well. A real dilemma, no good answer. No good choices.

Halbertal became particularly eloquent when I asked him the “species” question that Daniel Ellsberg had raised. Is there something fatally flawed in human nature that brought us to this point? A question I had asked scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust: “Do you wonder about the nature of human nature when you contemplate these kind of questions?” I asked him. His answer was both memorable and tragic.

“I think, you know, I didn’t realize what I always knew, but it’s become more clear: that humans are capable of the best and the worst, and the gap within humanity is so big. I mean I’m not—I didn’t turn cynical, because I see cases of goodwill and piety and altruistic sentiment that are so genuine, and then you know, just to see manifestations of radical evil.

“And then what I learn is, I come back in that respect to the Jewish teaching that the options are open. There are very different options and choices that are open to human beings and what they should do and they can shape themselves in very different radically diametrically opposed directions, and that humans have a choice in how they do it. But when you confront the spectrum of humanity you understand the potential of freedom that exists, and human responsibility for what it makes out of itself.”

At the end of the interview I must admit I found myself feeling somewhat emotional. I had been searching for someone in a position of responsibility, or at least inside knowledge, to entertain the notion that I had fixated upon that nuclear retaliation was immoral. I thought his willingness to speak frankly was courageous, not least because he was likely to die in any nuclear exchange.

“It’s rare to find someone,” I found myself telling Halbertal, as I prepared to leave, “who takes the question of the morality of retaliation seriously. I’ve always thought that in focusing on this that I was an outlier or something like that, or beyond the pale, whatever, but retaliation never made any sense to me. On the other hand there is the paradox that one shouldn’t talk about the possibility of an esoteric morality because it invites an immoral attack.”

This was when I asked him if it was wrong to write about this, and this was when he said I should.

From How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III by Ron Rosenbaum. Copyright © 2011 by Ron Rosenbaum. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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