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Navigating Israel’s Nuclear ‘Samson Option’

Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona. Photo: Wikicommons

In any rationality-based strategic calculus, the “Samson Option” — which refers to an Israeli nuclear strike — would refer not to a last-resort act of national vengeance, but to a persuasive limit on existential threats.

When taken together with Israel’s intentionally ambiguous nuclear strategy, an outdated doctrine commonly referred to as “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” or “Israel’s bomb in the basement” (amimut in Hebrew), more compelling threat postures could prove effective. To be truly promising, however, an Israeli Samson Option would need to 1) coincide with an incremental and selective end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” and 2) pertain to Iran directly, not just to terrorist proxies.

There are no conceivable circumstances in which Samson could offer Israel useful applications regarding Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, or any other jihadist foes.

Israeli strategists will need to consider factors beyond what is taking place right now between Israel and its jihadist adversaries. Since military crises in other parts of the world could spill over into the Middle East, strategic planners should begin to clarify Israel’s operational preparations regarding Samson. This is especially the case where a spill-over could involve the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons.

Though Iran is still “only” pre-nuclear, it already has the capacity to use radiation dispersal weapons and/or launch conventional rockets at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. Moreover, Tehran has close ties to Pyongyang, and it is not inconceivable that a nuclear North Korea might operate as a strategic stand-in for a not-yet-nuclear Iran.

For disciplined Israeli strategists, geopolitical context matters. There can be no logic-based assessment of probabilities because the events under consideration would be unprecedented. In logic and mathematics, true probabilities can never be ascertained out of nothing. They can be drawn only from the determinable frequency of pertinent past events.

These are not narrowly political or intuitive calculations. As an operationally meaningful concept, the Samson Option references a residual deterrence doctrine founded upon credible threats (whether implicit or explicit) of overwhelming nuclear retaliation or counter-retaliation. These are unconventional threats to thwart more-or-less expected enemy state aggressions. Reasonably, any such massive last-resort doctrine could enter into force only where enemy aggressions would imperil Israel’s continued existence as a viable nation-state. In the absence of expected aggressions from Iran, Israel would more prudently rely upon an “escalation ladder.”

For doctrinal clarity, Israel’s nuclear forces should always remain oriented to deterrence ex ante, never to revenge ex post. It would do Israel little good to proffer Samson-level threats in response to “ordinary” or less than massive forms of enemy attack. Even where the principal operational object for Israel would be counter-terrorist success against Hamas, Hezbollah, etc., invoking Samson could make sense only vis-à-vis Hamas state patron Iran or Iran’s nuclear patron North Korea. In such nuanced calculations, assumptions of rationality could prove problematic.

For Israel’s nuclear deterrent to work against a still non-nuclear Iran, it is virtually inconceivable that it would need to include a Samson Option. In any crisis between Israel and Iran involving jihadist terror, Israel could almost certainly achieve “escalation dominance” without employing Samson. But if Iran were already an authentic nuclear adversary, its capacity to enhance surrogate terror capabilities would exceed any pre-nuclear constraints of competitive risk-taking. In these circumstances, Samson could prove necessary.

Israel’s basis for launching a preemptive strike against Iran without Samson could be rational only before that state turned verifiably nuclear. A foreseeable non-Samson plan for preemption would involve more direct Iranian involvement in the continuing terror war against Israel on behalf of Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. By setting back Iranian nuclear efforts and infrastructures, such pre-Samson involvement could offer Israel an asymmetrical power advantage in the region. This larger opportunity would be the result of Israel’s not yet having to fear a nuclear war against Iran.

There would be related matters of intra-crisis communications. As an element of any ongoing strategic dialogue, the basic message of an Israeli Samson Option would need to remain uniform and consistent. It should signal to an adversary state the unstated promise of a counter-city (“counter value”) nuclear reprisal. Israel would also need to avoid signaling to its Iranian adversary any sequential gradations of nuclear warfighting.

Israel’s “bottom line” reasoning would likely be as follows: For Israel, exercising a Samson Option threat is not apt to deter any Iranian aggressions short of nuclear and/or massively large-scale conventional (including biological) first strikes. Therefore, Samson can do little to prevent Iran from its enthusiastic support of anti-Israel jihadists.

Whatever the Samson Option’s precise goals, its key objective should remain constant and conspicuous. This objective is to keep Israel “alive,” not (as presented in Biblical imagery) to stop the Jewish State from “dying alone.” In this peremptory objective, Israeli policy should deviate from the Biblical Samson narrative.

Ultimately, Samson, in all relevant military nuclear matters, should be about how best to manage urgent processes of strategic dissuasion. At least for now, Israel’s presumed nuclear strategy, though not yet clearly articulated, is oriented toward nuclear war avoidance and not to nuclear war fighting. From all standpoints, this represents Israel’s only correct orientation.

The Samson Option could never protect Israel as a comprehensive nuclear strategy by itself. This option should never be confused with Israel’s more generalized or “broad spectrum” nuclear strategy, one that would seek to maximize deterrence at incrementally less apocalyptic levels of military engagement.

At this point, various questions will need to be raised. Above all: How can the Samson Option best serve Israel’s general strategic requirements? Though the primary mission of Israel’s nuclear weapons should be to preserve the Jewish State — not to wreak havoc upon foes when all else has seemingly been lost — obvious preparations for a Samson Option could still improve Israel’s nuclear deterrence and preemption capabilities.

As soon as possible, even during the current Gaza war with Hamas, Jerusalem will need to shift from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” to “selective nuclear disclosure.” Among other things, this explicit shift would allow Israel to clarify that its nuclear weapons are not too large for actual operational use against Iran. In essence, this complex clarification would be the reciprocal of Israel’s Samson Option and would cover the complete spectrum of Israel’s nuclear deterrence options.

There will be corresponding legal issues. Israeli resorts to conventional and defensive first strikes could prove permissible or law-enforcing under authoritative international law. In such cases, Israeli preemptions would contain a jurisprudential counterpart to nuclear weapons use. This counterpart should be referenced formally as “anticipatory self-defense.”

Concerning long-term Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could help convince Iran or other designated enemy states that massive aggressions against Israel would never be gainful.  This could prove most compelling if Israel’s “Samson weapons” were 1) coupled with some explicit level of nuclear disclosure (thereby effectively ending Israel’s longstanding posture of nuclear ambiguity); 2) recognizably invulnerable to enemy first strikes; and 3) “counter-city”/”counter-value” in declared mission function. Additionally, in view of what nuclear strategists sometimes refer to as the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a more evident Israeli willingness to take existential risks.

On occasion, the nuclear deterrence benefits of “pretended irrationality” could depend on prior Iranian awareness of Israel’s counter-city or counter-value targeting posture. Such a posture was recommended some 20 years ago by the Project Daniel Group in its confidential report to then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Residually, however, to best ensure that Israel could still engage in nuclear warfighting if its counter-value nuclear deterrence were to fail, Israel would more openly adopt a “mixed” counter-value/counter-force nuclear targeting doctrine.

In reference to strategies of preemption, Israeli preparations for a Samson Option — explicit, recognizable and not just sotto voce — could help convince Israel’s leadership that defensive first strikes could sometimes be gainful.

In all cases involving Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence, visible last-resort nuclear preparations could enhance Israel’s preemption options by underscoring a bold national willingness to take existential risks. However, displaying such risks could become a double-edged sword. The fact that these are uncharted waters and there exist no precedents from which to extrapolate science-based probabilities means Israel would need to move with determination and caution.

What about “pretended irrationality?” That complex calculus could become a related part of Samson. Israel’s leaders will need to remain mindful of this integration. Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option, though unwitting, could encourage Iranian preemptions. This peril would be underscored by pressures on both Israel and Iran to achieve intra-crisis “escalation dominance.” Also significant in this unpredictable environment of competitive risk-taking would be either or both sides’ deployment of expanding missile defenses.

This hearkens back to the early days of Cold War nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union, days of “mutually assured destruction” or MAD. Either Israeli or Iranian efforts to reduce nuclear retaliatory force vulnerabilities could incentivize the other to more hurriedly strike first; that is, to “preempt the preemption.” In reference to international law, close attention would then need to be directed toward the peremptory rules of “military necessity.”

If left to itself, neither deterred nor preempted, Iran could threaten to bring the Jewish State face-to-face with Dante’s Inferno. Such a portentous scenario has been made more credible by the recent strategic strengthening of Iran by its tighter alignment with North Korea and its surrogate fighters in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. At some not-too-distant point, a coordinated Iran-Hezbollah offensive (complementing the Iran-Hamas offensive in Gaza) could signal more imminent existential perils for Israel. By definition, all such synergistic intersections would be taking place within the broadly uncertain context of “Cold War II.”

In extremis atomicum, these hazards could become so unique and formidable that employing a Samson Option would represent the only available strategic option for Israel. In the best of all possible worlds, Israel would have no need to augment or even maintain its arsenal of deterrent threat options – especially untested nuclear components – but this ideal reconfiguration of world politics remains a long way off. In that ideal world, Israel could anticipate the replacement of realpolitik (power politics) with Westphalian international politics. Such a replacement would be based on the awareness that planet Earth is an inter-dependent and organic whole.

Plainly, the time for such replacement has not yet arrived. It follows that Jerusalem will need to prepare visibly for a possible Samson Option. The point of this doctrinal imperative would not be to give preference to any actual applications of Samson, but to best ensure that Israel could deter all survival-threatening enemy aggressions.

For the moment, Israel remains in protracted war with Hamas. It can succeed in this conflict only by weakening jihadist state-sponsor Iran. In the best-case scenario, Iran would remain non-nuclear and Israeli management of Iranian terror support would remain within the bounds of conventional deterrence. If, however, Iran were permitted to cross the nuclear weapons threshold by acquiring chain-reaction nuclear weapons (not just radiation dispersal weapons), Israel’s subsequent efforts at deterrence of Iran would become vastly more problematic. At that point, ipso facto, Israel could require a Samson Option to maintain its “escalation dominance.”

There does exist an intermediate, if paradoxical, scenario for Israel. If Iran should become involved in any direct military action against Israel before becoming a fully nuclear adversary, the Jewish State could find itself with a strategic and law-enforcing opportunity to preemptively destroy Iranian nuclear infrastructures before they become operational. Though advancing such a scenario could also create the false impression of planned Israeli aggression, it would more correctly represent permissible self-defense. Most importantly, of course, such an Israeli preemption could prevent a full-scale nuclear war with Iran.

How should Israel navigate chaos? Whether in the Old Testament or in more-or-less synchronous Greek and Roman thought, chaos can be understood as something potentially positive: an intellectual tabula rasa which, if thoughtfully “filled in,” can prepare the world for all possibilities, both sacred and profane. In essence, chaos can represent an inchoate place from which an expanding civilizational opportunity can still originate.

Such thinking is unorthodox, to be sure, but for Israel it could prove manifestly useful. With such thinking, chaos is never just a “predator” that swallows everything whole: omnivorous, callous, indiscriminate, and without higher purpose. Here, chaos is considered instead as an auspicious “openness,” a protean realm from within which new kinds of opportunity can be revealed.  

This means the chaos in the Middle East need not necessarily be interpreted by Israel’s senior military planners as a harbinger of further regional violence and instability. In some hard-to-conceptualize respects, at least, such chaos could represent a condition for national security and survival. Though there are still rough seas ahead, their waves could be harnessed for a purposeful strategic direction.

Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1980) and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2016. A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.

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Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Welcomes Anti-Israel Campus Protesters to ‘Resistance Front’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Official Khamenei Website/Handout via REUTERS

Iran’s so-called “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, applauded the anti-Israel protesters who have thrown university campuses across the US into chaos over the past several weeks, declaring them part of a new “branch of the Resistance Front” against the Jewish state.

“Dear university students in the United States of America, this message is an expression of our empathy and solidarity with you,” Khamenei wrote in an open letter published on Thursday. “As the page of history is turning, you are standing on the right side of it.”

Rehashing antisemitic conspiracies of Jewish control, he derided “the global Zionist elite” for speaking against the campus demonstrations.

“The global Zionist elite — who owns most US and European media corporations or influences them through funding and bribery — has labeled this courageous, humane resistance movement as ‘terrorism,’” Khamenei wrote. “You have now formed a branch of the Resistance Front and have begun an honorable struggle in the face of your government’s ruthless pressure — a government which openly supports the usurper and brutal Zionist regime.”

Khamenei also praised students in other countries who have launched anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses, noting the leading role that faculty have played in fostering and supporting the unrest.

“Besides you students from dozens of American universities, there have also been uprisings in others countries among academics and the general public,” he wrote. “The support and solidarity of your professors is a significant and consequential development. This can offer some measure of comfort in the face of your government’s police brutality and the pressures it is exerting on you. I too am among those who empathize with you young people, and value your perseverance.”

Khamenei’s letter came amid an outpouring of praise for the anti-Zionist students by Islamist terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

“While we support the assassination of the infidel Zionists and the beheading of them, we also appreciate and value the movement of Western demonstrators and sit-in students from Western universities, who through their sit-ins and protests expressed their rejection of the genocide taking place in Gaza,” al-Qaeda leadership wrote in a recent communique

Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran, have also cheered the protests.

“Today’s students are the leaders of the future, and their suppression today means an expensive electoral bill that the Biden administration will pay sooner or later,” Hamas official Izzat Al-Risheq said in a statement last month.

Naim Qassem, the deputy head of Hezbollah, also praised the protesters during an interview with Al-Manar TV earlier this month.

“We appreciate and value this very much. Perhaps in the future, there will be cooperation among the youth of the world — in America, France, Britain, Germany, and all the activists,” he said. “The [campus protests] are important, especially because they will have an impact on US elections. They will have an impact on the American position.”

Earlier this month, when some universities suspended students who had occupied sections of campus and refused to leave unless school officials agreed to condemn and boycott Israel, the Iran-backed Houthi militia, a terrorist organization that has repeatedly violated freedom of the seas by attacking international shipping vessels passing through the Red Sea, offered to admit the disciplined students as transfers to Sanaa University, an institution it administers.

Some anti-Zionist student groups have reciprocated the admiration.

Last week, Columbia University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) endorsed Hamas, the latest sign of its growing extremism and willingness to embrace Islamic extremism and antisemitism.

“The Palestinian resistance is the only force materially fighting back against isr*el [sic],” the group said in a series of posts shared by Documenting Jew Hatred on Campus, a social media account which exposes antisemitism on college campuses. “There is no way to eliminate the resistance without ending the occupation. When you see a video of a young palestinian [sic] boy traumatized in a hospital talking about how iof [the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF] shot his pregnant mother in cold blood in front of his own eyes, do not question how he chooses to resist years later.”

Campus Reform, a higher education watchdog which first reported Documenting Jew Hatred on Campus’ posts, noted that Columbia SJP has added an “inverted red triangle” to its social media biography, further indicating its support for Hamas. The Palestinian terrorist group has used an inverted red triangle in its propaganda videos to indicate an Israeli target about to be attacked, and anti-Israel protesters on university campuses have been using the symbol in their demonstrations.

Columbia SJP, a group that has re-formed under multiple names since being suspended by school administrators during the fall semester, was central in staging a slew of riotous demonstrations in which anti-Zionist activists verbally assaulted Jewish students with antisemitic epithets, clamorously expressed support for terrorism and Hamas, and caused thousands of dollars in damages to school property.

The anti-Zionist student movement’s support for terrorism and anti-American ideologies has been expressed before.

Footage of the protests which erupted on college campuses at the end of spring semester showed demonstrators chanting in support of Hamas and calling for the destruction of Israel. In many cases, they lambasted the US and Western civilization more broadly.

“Yes, we’re all Hamas, pig!” one protester was filmed screaming during the fracas at Columbia University, which saw some verbal skirmishes between pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist partisans. “Long live Hamas!” said others who filmed themselves dancing and praising the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terrorist organization. “Kill another solider!”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Advocacy Group Attempts to Shore Up Support for Israel Among US Democrats

US President Joe Biden addresses rising levels of antisemitism, during a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony, at the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, US, May 7, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A pro-Israel advocacy group is attempting to quell fears among US Democratic politicians that expressing support for the Jewish state amid the ongoing war in Gaza will lead to electoral defeat in November. 

Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a group that advocates for pro-Israel policies within the Democratic Party, circulated a memo this week explaining that the war in Gaza is simply not a top priority for most of the electorate. The memo, first acquired by Axios news website, asserts that “it just isn’t true” that Democratic support for Israel will come at an electoral cost. 

The group argues that a series of misleading polls has caused Democratic elected officials to become more tepid in their support for the Jewish state. 

To bolster its claims, DMFI points to a poll conducted by the New York Times in May which revealed that only 2 percent of voters cite Israel, Palestinians, Hamas, or Gaza as their most important issue. Nonetheless, the Times tried to exaggerate the extent to which voters care about the Israel-Hamas war by highlighting the 5 percent of voters who cite foreign policy as their biggest issue, according to DMFI. However, these 5 percent of voters did not identify if the war in Gaza is their major foreign policy concern.

The group also points out a Harvard-Harris poll from April which showed that Americans overwhelmingly side with Israel in its ongoing war effort. Eighty percent of Americans support Israel and only 20 percent back Hamas, the poll revealed.

DMFI also suggests that Israel’s ongoing military offensive against Hamas has not had a noticeable impact on President Joe Biden’s national standing. According to polling data aggregated by FiveThirtyEight, the president’s approval rating on Oct. 7of last year stood at 39.6 percent, and on April 23 last month, his approval stood at 40 percent. The same poll reveals that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden did not grow over the same time period. 

DMFI president Mark Mellman told Axios that anti-Israel activists represent a small fringe of the American electorate. 

“People sometimes mistake volume for percentage, and the fact that some people are very loud doesn’t make them the majority. … It doesn’t even make them a substantial minority,” Mellman said.

The group’s efforts to reach out to Democrats come on the heels of a high-pressure effort by left-wing groups to force the Democratic establishment to stop supporting Israel. Anti-Israel organizations have organized efforts to encourage voters in Democratic primaries to vote “uncommitted” in lieu of voting for Biden. Moreover, nearly every appearance by Biden in recent months has been marked by the presence of scores of angry anti-Israel protesters

The relationship between Democratic politicians and the Jewish state has significantly soured in the months following Hamas’ Oct. 7 slaughter of over 1,200 people in southern Israel. High-profile Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) have suggested that Israel is committing “genocide” against Palestinian civilians.

Meanwhile, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (CA) signed onto a letter urging Biden to pause weapons shipments to Israel. Biden vowed to stop arms deliveries to Israel if the Israeli army attempts to dismantle the remaining Hamas battalions within the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, expressing concern about the prospect of civilian casualties during such an offensive.

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Hate crimes in Toronto are predominantly antisemitic—and the numbers continue to rise: TPS security and intelligence commander

Antisemitic hate crimes continue to account for more than any other category of reported hate crimes in Toronto, according to the head of Toronto police intelligence. Superintendent Katherine Stephenson of Toronto Police Service (TPS) confirmed the ongoing spike in hate occurrences during a presentation at Holy Blossom Temple on May 29, where she addressed 350 […]

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