While most of the focus in the ongoing war of words between the Trump administration and North Korea is on whether it will lead to war between the US and Pyongyang, how might it impact Israel? Might it bring nuclear conflict or war closer to Israel’s borders?
First, it is important to understand what is unique about the current competition between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong- Un over who can sound more bellicose.
Since the US dropped nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, eight of the ”nuclear weapons club’s” nine countries have been extremely restrained when talking about nuclear weapons use.
Ironically, bombing Japan was so much more devastating than expected that it created a taboo that has held for decades.
The US and the USSR became even more careful after unintentional escalations and misunderstandings during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis almost led to worldwide nuclear winter.
Rather, even as nuclear weapons may be hinted to from time to time as an implied threat and to show determination, usually the threat is unspoken and any public words are carefully constructed.
Israel has been the most careful of all, not officially confirming its nuclear weapon’s state status even as foreign sources consistently say that Israel has been a nuclear power since 1967 and now may have as many as 200 nuclear weapons.
Israel has worried that admitting its status could egg on its hostile neighbors to go after their own programs, much as Iran, Iraq and Syria have tried.
North Korea has been the one exception to the restraint rule, for years threatening its neighbors and the US with fiery rhetoric of nuclear destruction.
For better or for worse, the US and its allies never tried to match the North’s rhetoric.
That all changed this week when President Donald Trump repeatedly threatened North Korea that it must cool its rhetoric or “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Since Trump’s statement, there has been a heated debate in the US by top Republicans and Democrats about the consequences of Trump’s decision to match North Korea’s brash verbiage.
Some have applauded Trump, saying that neither engagement nor sanctions alone has succeeded at stopping Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon’s advancement.
A subset of those supporting Trump’s approach also support military action against North Korea to accomplish regime change.
But almost all Democrats, some Republicans and many nuclear theorists believe Trump’s statements about playing with a nuclear fire are far too dangerous.
They note in the recent US defense report that North Korea may be much closer to being able to strike US territories or even the continental US than was thought until recent months.
They add that even without nuclear weapons, North Korea’s artillery and conventional missiles could kill millions of South Koreans and Japanese as well as hundreds of thousands of US servicemen and civilians abroad.
But how again does this impact Israel? First, if either the US or North Korea actually escalate into using nuclear weapons, the taboo on their use would be broken.
Nothing is more powerful at preventing nuclear weapons use than the taboo that no one can imagine the horrible consequences of their use.
Israel has one “enemy state” that already has nuclear weapons – Pakistan.
Pakistan has never expressed interest in actually fighting Israel, but if jihadists ever took control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, a dilemma debated already for years, a rogue nuclear strike on Israel might be more likely after a US-North Korea nuclear exchange.
Jihadists could be encouraged in general after seeing a weapon’s immense destructive power to try more aggressively to steal a nuclear weapon from any of the nuclear club’s countries to use against Israel or the US.
The motivation could be either hatred of Israel or a “safer” way to attack the West than directly attacking the US.
Iran is not far from nuclear weapons and many have theorized that some of its jumps toward obtaining a weapon can be credited to North Korea.
If North Korea is attacked with nuclear weapons or feels it is closer to being attacked, it may try to advance Iran close to the finish line. Iran crossing the nuclear threshold and using weapons against Israel would then be more likely.
Iran may also see less value to the 2015 nuclear deal once nuclear weapons are being used again.
Next, the wider Middle East nuclear arms race Israel has feared would be far more likely to happen if countries believed they were all now more at risk of being hit by nuclear weapons because the taboo was broken.
An entirely different, but dangerous, possibility is that Trump continues his bellicose threats, but does not follow through. This could encourage North Korea, Iran (which could drop the nuclear deal) and others to move forward more aggressively, if they viewed Trump as full of hot air. None of this means that Trump’s high stakes gamble of matching the North’s fiery rhetoric will not work. In fact, most of those opposing Trump’s rhetoric merely suggest alternative policies that are more of the same ideas that have not slowed North Korea until now.
But right or wrong, and even as the nuclear taboo has not yet been broken, Trump has broken a taboo relating to nuclear rhetoric. The breaking of this taboo could haunt Israel down the road even if the current conflict has nothing to do with the Middle East.