A classic game theory example is that of two juvenile delinquents of my era playing "chicken." This was a contest in which two cars are driven at top speed toward each other. The driver who veers off first loses. He's the "chicken."
How do you maximize your chances of winning? Throw the steering wheel out the window where your opponent can see you do it. If he's not suicidal, he'll assume that you are, and veer off. You win. He loses.
Unless, of course, neither of you turns off, because he's as crazy as you are. Then you both lose.
Israeli nuclear policy has resembled this game, according to a fascinating paper by Lt. Col. Warner D. Farr, a medical doctor and counterproliferation expert. There are additional complications, because Israel's policies and those of its Arab opponents, especially Egypt, in turn affected the calculations of Israel's backer, the U.S., and Egypt's, the Soviet Union. The brief discussion here assumes that Farr's analysis is generally accurate; it's certainly amply footnoted, sober, and well-reasoned.
HT: The Ape Man, the Chieftain of Seir.
Col. Farr's paper is worth reading. In essence, he argues that U.S. support of Israel with conventional weapons was partly motivated by the fact that Israel possessed, and on several occasions appeared ready to use, a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. In an era of "mutual assured destruction," the U.S. feared the consequences of an Israeli first use of such weapons, especially a possible Soviet reaction.
Israel in its infancy was armed by Soviet-influenced Czechoslovakia and by smuggling. Then, as France battled to keep its control over Algeria against Egyptian-supported rebels, France supplied arms and technology to Israel. It was after Israel obtained the bomb, and seriously threatened, as its leaders believed, went on nuclear alert, the U.S. twice (in 1967 and 1973) airlifted conventional weapons to avert an Israeli military defeat and the consequent first use of nukes.
It follows that the vaunted "Israeli lobby," influential though it may be, does not offer the principal explanation for U.S. military support of that country. It is the Israeli sense of danger, exacerbated by its geographical position and post-Hitler anxieties, that motivated its nuclear armament and has triggered its nuclear alerts.
What are a few tanks and aircraft, compared to the risk of nuclear war, especially when the military defeat of Soviet clients represented points for our side? If Israel has unscrewed the steering wheel and has only to snap its wrist to toss it out the window and into the Mediterranean, their U.S. backers were highly motivated to encourage them not to make the toss, and instead to veer at the last minute. Weapons, technology and money offered this encouragement.
The threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb changes the game. Touchy and anxious as the Israelis are, the Iranians manage to appear fanatically irrational. At least President Ahmadinejad does so. The Israelis have some Dolphin-class submarines, presumably nuclear missile capable, but it's a small country with concentrated population centers. When the Iranians first get nukes, if they do, they will have only a small number.
When and if Iran gets nukes will be the time of maximum danger. The aggressor in a nuclear exchange between the two would enjoy substantial advantages, the second-strike capacities of each being limited.
As I've said before, I don't particularly like the Israelis, but they've fought for and won their sovereignty, and the reciprocal expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews of the Arab World is different from many such events in the age of nationalism only because the Arab lands have refused to receive and integrate the Palestinian refugees.
Although it might have been greater at one time, the prospect that a Palestinian state created today would control its population enough to ensure a tranquil border is dim. A pragmatic Palestinian dictatorship with efficient and probably brutal police that saw stability as in its interest would be required, and none is on offer.
I don't favor an American attack on Iran, for reasons I've stated before, and question whether on present evidence an Israeli attack on Iran (which will be seen to be U.S,.-sponsored, even if it isn't) is either desirable or possible.
Israel and Iran are in their cars. Gentlemen, start your engines.
We are cursed to live in interesting times.
UPDATE: I'm told the Farr link above is to something other than Farr's paper, which appears to be true, although it's a relevant link. Here's the link to Farr's paper.