The pronouncements of junior ministers in any government normally go unnoticed in the wider world. This truism was recently violated when Amihai Eliyahu, heritage minister in the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, received international attention for a comment he made during a radio interview. Asked about the possibility of Israel resolving the ongoing conflict in Gaza with nuclear weapons, he responded “That’s one way.”
Criticism and recriminations quickly followed, including the suspension of Eliyahu from cabinet meetings by Netanyahu. His punishment was at least in part for publicly acknowledging something the Israeli government has never done before, namely that it possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons (said to be at least 150 nuclear devices according to former US President Jimmy Carter in a public comment in 2008).
The Eliyahu case could be viewed as an isolated incident if not for other recent examples of politicians seemingly flippantly threatening the possible use of the ultimate weapon. These true weapons of mass destruction have only been deployed twice before in a conflict, both by the United States against Japanese cities in the closing days of World War Two in August 1945. The two atomic bombs, but a fraction the size of many current nuclear weapons, killed over 100,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Before the recent Israeli case, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and some of those around him have garnered considerable attention and generated controversy and apprehension through nuclear threats and speculation over the past two years. At the time of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin repeatedly suggested that Russia might use nuclear weapons and later ordered a higher state of alert for his country’s nuclear forces.
In September of that year, he twice alluded to the use of nuclear weapons as part of the conflict over Ukraine. In the first instance, he warned that in the case of a “threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” Others around Putin, including his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, have engaged in their own nuclear threat rhetoric suggesting a coherent and coordinated strategy as opposed to flippant comments. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Friday rejected as "absolutely insane" claims that Moscow may unleash a nuclear war.
The Russian nuclear rhetoric has been decried by the administration of President Joe Biden, but past US presidents have not been afraid to articulate nuclear bluster of their own. Take Donald Trump, former President of the United States.
Over several years, Trump has repeatedly speculated in private and public about the United States military using nuclear weapons. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, the Republican Party candidate allegedly asked three times during a briefing why the United States could not use nuclear weapons.
At a meeting in 2017, in the aftermath of which the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reportedly called Trump a “moron,” he expressed a desire for an expansion of the US nuclear arsenal by ten times its current size. In the same year, the US President repeatedly threatened North Korea in public forums with what amounted to nuclear destruction.
He told the United Nations’ General Assembly that the US was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea” and he warned on social media Kim Jong Un’s regime against menacing the United States as it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Privately, Trump, to the alarm of his officials, echoed such rhetoric, going so far as to suggest that a nuclear attack by the United States on North Korea could be blamed on another nation.