Statements made by heads of state on the nuclear issue have special importance because of the subject’s critical nature. Accordingly, these statements are known as “declaratory policy,” which indicates that these statements are significant in and of themselves. Among nuclear superpowers, the main component of “declaratory policy” does not refer to capabilities, but rather to deterrence. After all, the entire purpose of nuclear deterrence is dependent on persuading the adversary, among other ways by statements made by the highest echelons, what will happen to it if it dares to strike. “Declaratory policy” in the nuclear issue has always been an area in which policy makers have always been extra meticulous about every word they say.
Israel formulated a “declaratory policy” that is known as “nuclear ambiguity,” because it was frugal with words and low in profile. Its diplomatic usefulness was proven over the years, which is why all the prime ministers stuck to it without making any changes. The latest case, in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ostensibly veered from the traditional line in an interview to a German journalist, is rare and unusual.
Nonetheless, obviously policy does not have to remain permanent and fossilized and all policy should sometimes be reexamined as to its suitability for changing circumstances. In our region, at the heart of the changing circumstances is Iran’s nuclear arming and its acquiring means of launching long range missiles and its provocative statements about Israel. These circumstances, as I have written here before, cause an accumulative “deterrence deficit” on Israel’s part the more the threats to it increase, while Israel is sticking to its “declaratory policy” and is maintaining an impressive degree of declaratory restraint.
The accumulated “deterrence deficit” could ostensibly justify calibrating the “declaratory policy” to a general and explicit message of deterrence. But such a calibration, as careful as it may be, would be a diversion from Israel’s “declaratory policy” up until today, and it seems that the need for this is less right now, if only because Israel’s work should be and is being done by others.
For example, we remember the statement by American defense secretary Cheney in the course of the first Gulf war, who explicitly threatened a massive Israeli response if it were attacked by unconventional weapons. That was it, he did not give details-but he threatened. Recently it was the current American secretary of defense, Bob Gates, who numbered Israel among the nuclear countries. He did not threaten, he did not explain-but ostensibly he revealed. And at this time, Senator Hillary Clinton who wants to be American president, expressed her evaluation that Iran will not attack Israel with a nuclear bomb if it achieves this capability, because this would necessarily lead to its obliteration. She said no more, did not explain-but deterred.
American statements do not obligate Israel of course. There is even a certain contradiction between them, as there is between the different motives behind them. Gates said what he said, most likely in order to explain Iran’s aspiration to have nuclear capability; Clinton, in contrast, perhaps wanted to express her confidence in Israel’s power of deterrence. Clinton believed that the Iranians would be deterred from carrying out a nuclear attack because of its fear of Israel’s response, while Gates did not rule out the possibility of their not being deterred.
In the coming months the Iranian issue is expected to come up on the agenda even more and along with it, more statements. There will be those in Israel who will advocate updating the “declaratory policy” and increasing its component of deterrence. This was already done, for example, by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said a few months ago, “Iran can also be destroyed.” There will be those, on the other hand, who will guard against any change and will stick to the “declaratory policy” as is, and will even want to tighten it. Opposition Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu-who was the first to define the Iranian threat as the main existential threat that Israel faces and whose nuclear capability must be prevented-in the past, would stick to the phrase “Israel will know how to defend itself,” without explaining and without threatening.
It seems that this strict policy is still suitable. Among other reasons, because the American statements cited above somewhat cover for the accumulated “deterrence deficit.” It seems that the time has not yet come to change Israel’s “declaratory policy” on the matter, not with a slip of the tongue and not deliberately.