Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

March 2000 (Vol. XXIII No. 12)


Israel’s Nuclear Policy: A Cost-Benefit Analysis
By Sharad Joshi *



Israel was the sixth nation in the world to acquire nuclear weapons. More than four decades after the beginning of its nuclear programme, it remains an undeclared nuclear weapon power. After the May 1998 tests by India and Pakistan, it is the only nuclear weapon state never to have tested. The ambiguity of its nuclear option is rooted in the geopolitics and the volatile nature of the Middle East. Since its inception, the programme has been shrouded in secrecy with hardly any concrete details emerging. Then in October 1986, the Sunday Times published details of Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme, based on information and photographs supplied by Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked as a nuclear technician at Israel’s secret Dimona complex. The revelations were credible and detailed, and for the first time were linked to an identifiable source. Vanunu’s disclosures have changed everything, in the sense that it is no longer possible to maintain that Israel does not have nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of the disclosures, there was a flurry of articles examining Israel’s nuclear option and the credibility of its ambiguous posture. In this study, Israel’s nuclear policy and the costs and benefits of such a policy are examined.

At the outset, a note of caution is essential: Any attempt to separate fact from fiction in the literature on Israel’s nuclear programme has to deal not just with lapses in memory and legitimate differences of opinion about the interpretation of events now dating back more than 30 years, but also with deliberate attempts to falsify the historical record. 1


Evolution of Israel’s Programme

A vigorous preoccupation with security issues has always characterised the Israeli approach to international affairs. Though there has always been an intensive debate among the “doves” and the “hawks”, there has also been a consensus about the need for military security. The initial doctrinal debate on the use of military power led to the decision to acquire nuclear weapons and the ambiguous posture to go with it.

Based on the military lessons of the 1948-49 War of Independence, Israel formulated a strategic and operational doctrine which entailed a defensive and deterrent posture at the strategic level and an offensive approach at the operational level. The principle was that Israel would not initiate war; but if war broke out, it would absorb the first strike, launch a rapid counter attack and transfer the battle to the enemy territory. 2

This doctrine was abandoned in the Suez campaign (1956), in favour of a strategy aimed at preventive war and the attainment of political objectives through the use of force. The Suez war was won militarily by Israel, but Nasser won a major political victory. The Israeli ruling establishment realised that political ends could not be achieved by military means. Politically and also in terms of manpower, wars were just too costly.

At this stage the nuclear factor came into the picture. The nuclear dimension was seen as the decisive deterrent. The quest for nuclear capability was prompted by basic asymmetries, in terms of population resources, strategic depth, territory and other attributes of power, between

Israel and the Arab world. The Israeli leadership sought to utilise one of the attributes of power in which Israel enjoyed superiority : scientific and technological capability.

Prime Minister Ben Gurion, a hard core realist, was convinced that the Arabs were not yet ready for a radical change in their attitude towards the Jewish state. He knew that as long as the Arabs were convinced that the Jews could be ‘pushed into the sea’, they would not accept the existence of the state of Israel as an independent, living entity.

One route towards a peace that would also make Israel secure from the hostile Arab world was to conclude a military pact with one or more of the superpowers. But neither the US, UK nor the USSR was willing to consider even informal military relations with Israel, competing as they were, for influence among the Arabs. American pressures in the Suez campaign also proved to the Israelis that inspite of the vast Jewish lobby in the US, when it came to security, Israel was on its own.

At this juncture Israel turned towards France in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The war in Algeria, the help provided by Nasser to FLN, the natural sympathy felt towards the heroic and lonely struggle of Israel by the Maquis (The French Resistance), and the Suez crisis, all contributed to the development of close relations between the two countries.

The Israeli-French nuclear collaboration started in 1956, with the French pledging to build a sizeable plutonium producing reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert. Construction for this, a 24 thermal mega watt natural uranium reactor, began in 1957. Shortly, several additional facilities at the Dimona plant, including a plutonium extraction plant were added. By the late 1950s, Israel lacked two key items—uranium fuel for the reactor and heavy water to permit fission of uranium for plutonium production. Israel obtained uranium from the world market. In November 1968, Israel acquired 200 tons of processed uranium secretly from Antwerp. By 1972, Israel had built three phosphoric acid plants, which extracted uranium as a by-product. In the mid 60s, Israel had obtained by stealth 100 kgs of US owned highly enriched uranium.

Regarding heavy water, Israel received 200 tons from Norway in 1959, pledging to use it only for peaceful purposes. Since Israel is not known to have procured heavy water from any other source, it is apparent that it continued to use the Norwegian material throughout the period that the Dimona plant was employed to produce plutonium for nuclear arms.


Israel’s Nuclear Policy

Israel’s defence strategy is conditioned by some unique features. It has a small population, located on a small narrow piece of land. The land is itself the subject of bitter animosity. It is surrounded on three sides by its traditional enemies, the Arab states, and on the fourth, by the Mediterranean Sea. Further, Israel has no strategic depth. In case of bombardment from the three land frontiers, there is no space for a strategic retreat. In effect, the five decade Arab threat to ‘throw the Jews into the sea’, (now rescinded), was not exactly an idle boast. Sooner or later Israel would have to retreat to its pre-1967 borders. That would leave it with no natural defensible frontiers.

For five decades Israel has been superior to the Arabs in battle due to its scientific and technological superiority, better training, tactics and battlefield management. Over time the Arabs have steadily reduced the gap between the two, both in the conventional and non-conventional sense, with massive arms purchases and the development of chemical and biological weaponry.

Despite the secrecy surrounding it, some fundamental features of Israel’s nuclear policy are quite clear. The basic doctrine behind its nuclear arsenal is that it is to deter any conventional Arab attack or non-conventional (Nuclear/Chemical/Biological) attack. The 1980s have seen a drive to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by several Arab countries. In the face of this an Israeli nuclear deterrent is crucial to its security. In case of a conventional attack, Israel would keep its option of using nuclear weapons open.

Built into this strategy is a clear and precise determination to use the arsenal as weapons of ‘last resort’—THE SAMSON OPTION. This option refers to a hypothetical situation in which Israeli conventional forces are defeated on the battlefield, presumably as a consequence of a concentrated attack by an Arab coalition, and the very existence of Israel is threatened. ‘Last Resort’ has a double aspect—deterrence and actual use. Deterrence is also a two-fold concept—deterrence against the initiation of war, and deterrence in mid war, i.e., threats to use nuclear weapons against attacking Arab states, if the war is not terminated immediately. Thus, in the last resort, nuclear weapons are to be used to preserve Israel’s survival. The survival syndrome finds its expression in anxiety over another Jewish holocaust. Fear of another holocaust and the idea of a Masada 3 like resistance form the basis of the doctrine of last resort.

In the current scenario, the likelihood of Israel having to confront a full scale attack by an Arab coalition with unlimited objectives is extremely low. Even if it does occur, Israel would probably be able to defend itself without resorting to the use, or the threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Since the beginning, Israel has pursued a strategy of ‘Deliberate Ambiguity’ concerning its nuclear capabilities and intentions—neither completely confirming, nor denying the possession of nuclear weapons, while simultaneously developing a regionally unique nuclear infrastructure.

The opaque nature of its nuclear arsenal has several elements. Unlike the policies of other nuclear powers, there has been a self imposed moratorium on any open nuclear tests. Israel not only wants to desist from such tests, it probably does not need to conduct any. A little known aspect of the French Israeli nuclear collaboration of the 1950s was the Israeli involvement in the creation of the French bomb. 4 As part of the bargain Israel received the nuclear installations at Dimona and uranium. Also part of the deal was that Israel would have unrestricted access to the data from the French nuclear test in February 1960. Therefore, this 1960 nuclear test established two countries as nuclear powers, not one.

Further, according to a May 1989 US television documentary, Israel was able to gain access to information concerning US tests from the 50s to the early 60s. Then there has been speculation that a signal detected on September 22, 1979 by a US monitoring satellite over the South Atlantic was in fact the flash from a low yield Israeli nuclear test. This issue is still unresolved and the uncertainty only adds to the ambiguity.

There is also no public debate concerning nuclear weapons and their proper role in national security strategy. There is an absence of such a debate essentially because such a debate would force public recognition of the nation’s nuclear capability. Official secrecy is the basis of the policy of deliberate ambiguity. The nuclear programme is completely controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office. Within the government, nuclear issues are not even discussed at the cabinet level, and are considered separately from other security issues. The official military censor is used to prevent unwanted publications regarding the programme. Even within the core group of those responsible for the nuclear programme, there is no concrete military doctrine regarding the use of nuclear weapons.

The political basis of deliberate ambiguity also includes statements by Israeli leaders and the rejection of the NPT and other international safeguards. Over the past four decades, official statements by Israeli leaders with respect to their nuclear capabilities have reflected a continuity in their official content. This continuity is found in the repeated formulation of the official government posture—that Israel does not possess nuclear weapons; that it will not be the ‘first nation to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East'; and that it does have the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons.

This official line was first articulated by Premier Levi Eshkol in 1968. It remains the basis for Israel’s nuclear policy. According to William Quandt, the meaning of this ambiguous phrase, as stated by then Israeli Ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin was that Israel would not be the first to test nuclear weapons or reveal their existence officially. 5 On October 5, 1968, Eshkol added what would become that essential element in the formulation of deliberate ambiguity, stating that, “Israel has the knowledge to make atomic bombs”. 6 In 1974, Prime Minister Rabin repeated the formula that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and adding that, “We can't afford to be the second either”. 7

The final component of Israel’s nuclear policy has been its attempt to prevent the Arab states from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if it means military action against them. Israel’s nuclear monopoly gives it the advantage of deterrence, vis-à-vis the Arab states. This has decreased the importance of Arab superiority and the value of their conventional weapons. An Arab nuclear arsenal would weaken Israel’s nuclear deterrence due to its lack of strategic depth, and proximity to the Arab states. This policy was manifested during Israel’s strike on the Iraqi Ozirak nuclear reactor in June 1981. Following this, Prime Minister Begin reinforced this doctrine saying that Israel would not permit Arabs to be equipped with Weapons of Mass Destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons.


Current Capabilities

Israel’s secret nuclear facilities for the production of plutonium, and perhaps tritium and enriched uranium are located at a site near Dimona, called the Negev Nuclear Research Centre. This facility contains a small production reactor and a plutonium separation facility; plutonium being Israel’s main route to nuclear weapons.

There is some uncertainty regarding the capacity of the reactor. In 1959, when the French delivered the reactor, it was supposed to be of the EL-3 type, i.e., an 18MW reactor. There is a debate over whether the reactor’s power was increased to over 40MW. Based on the statements of Vanunu about plutonium throughputs in specific areas of the plant, independent specialists have confirmed that the power actually reached 150MW.

Israel is also said to be knowledgeable about sophisticated nuclear weapons design, including thermonuclear weapons and boosted fission weapons. But details available are sketchy. Israel is supposed to have developed conservative designs that require few, if any, full scale tests to demonstrate their reliability or yield. Such a design would imply that each weapon, whether pure fission, boosted or thermonuclear one, has a greater amount of plutonium than commonly assumed. Assuming 5 kgs of plutonium per warhead, and plutonium production estimates of the figure given below, Israel would have constructed 64-112 warheads till 1994.


Estimated Inventories of Israeli Weapons Grade Plutonium at the end of 1994, 1995 & 1998
  Weapons-Grade Plutonium (kg) Number of Warheads
Dec 31, 1994 320-560 64-112
Dec 31, 1995 330-580 66-116
Dec 31, 1999 370-650 74-130


For the delivery of these warheads, Israel deploys two nuclear capable ballistic missile systems—the Jericho I and the Jericho II, both solid fuel two stage missiles with ranges of 600 km and 1500 km respectively, at the facility at Zachariah. Israel’s Shavit space launch vehicle could also be modified to carry 500 kg over 7800 km giving it ICBM range. Further, the Airforce’s inventory of nuclear capable aircraft include F-15, F-16, F-4E and the Phantom 2000. They have also reportedly modified conventional air-to-surface missiles to deliver nuclear warheads. Finally, the army has also developed a nuclear projectile for its 175mm self propelled gun.


The Costs

Outlined below are some of the costs and drawbacks of Israel’s nuclear programme. They include those aspects of Israel’s security concerns, where Israel’s nuclear option may actually contribute to tensions in the Middle East instead of the ’stability’ that it is supposed to provide.

Political Costs

The political costs that Israel has had to pay for its nuclear weapons have been quite high. It has regularly given rise to friction with its closest ally, the United States. In the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as part of their non-proliferation agenda came down hard on the Israeli government. In fact, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was forced to go public with Israel’s nuclear programme under pressure from the US in the early 60s.

Though Israel’s nuclear capability has been reconciled with, to a certain extent, by some of the Arab states, 9 it regularly faces vigorous criticism from them. Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT, and instead its periodic assertions that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East, has led to regular pressure on it to renounce its nuclear option. The Arab states have repeatedly raised this issue as a threat to peace, at international forums like the UN and IAEA. Israel has always resisted the pressure, insisting that the nuclear issue can be seriously discussed only through direct negotiations between the parties and in the context of the agreements on other aspects of regional security. In fact its position is that this issue should be discussed only after all other arms control issues are resolved. 10 Israel has often been demonised and accused of being hegemonic and having genocidal tendencies towards its neighbours. The US has also been accused of hypocrisy for not putting enough pressure on Israel to sign the NPT, while coercing other countries to do so.

The forum on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) established in 1991, under the auspices of the Madrid Peace Talks has been deadlocked. The Arabs, in particular argue for immediate focus on the nuclear issue, without taking into account the overall security issue, and want discussions on a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) to start immediately. An end to the Israeli nuclear monopoly takes precedence over any other arms control issue. On the other side, Israel wants the nuclear issue to be brought on the table only after the peace making stage is complete, with the establishment of the NWFZ to be the last stage of the arms control negotiations. 11 Further, Israel has refused to allow any discussions on this issue till Iran, Iraq and Syria join the ACRS forum.

Israel’s position on a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone has been that once there is a long lasting peace in the Middle East, no state should possess WMD. 12 But on the other hand, Israel has no intention of renouncing its nuclear arsenal even after formal peace is declared with all Arab states. Even a peace treaty, which solves all the issues and ends the Arab-Israel conflict will not change the geopolitical perceptions of Israel’s predicament. Israel still sees itself as a small Jewish island in a vast ocean of Arabs. The memories of the holocaust will never disappear and a deterrent capability will always be needed. This is bound to affect the peace process sometime in the future with the Arabs demanding renunciation of the nuclear option as the price for peace.

However, inspite of the Arab public demands that Israel sign the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, there exists a great deal of flexibility and realism about the virtues of reaching an interim nuclear bargain with Israel. 13 But how long can this moderation last, in the face of continued Israeli refusals to have any serious discussions on the nuclear issue?

Israel is caught in a Catch-22 situation. Any substantial discussion runs the risk of upsetting the long standing ambiguous framework of its nuclear programme and with it the nuclear status quo. The absence of any progress here could affect the peace process, especially during the final status talks, when the Arabs could hold this as a bargaining chip.

Israel’s opaque nuclear policy gives rise to a further difficulty. For any agreement, in this case, the one on arms control, there has to be basic transparency, so that the negotiating parties know what exactly is on the negotiating table. This lack of openness by the Israeli side, means that the parties cannot even agree on the appropriate vocabulary to be used. For decades Israel has insisted that it will not be the first to ‘introduce’ nuclear weapons in the region. The reality, as everyone knows, is that Israel does indeed possess a substantial arsenal. In arms control negotiations, for these weapons to be ‘eliminated’ they first have to be ‘introduced’, i.e., Israel has to first admit their existence. And this it will not do; admitting at the most to possessing the ‘capability’. 14

Arab WMD Development

A common argument is that the Israeli nuclear capability has led to the pursuit of WMD and ballistic missiles by some of the Arab states and Iran. This is only partially correct. The fact is that the Arab states have pursued such capabilities to counter each other also. The region’s extraordinary complexity, the numerous actors, and the sources of conflict also have to be considered. 15 The resulting divisions in the Arab world have ensured that the chances of a combined Arab attack are low.

The Syrian chemical arsenal should be considered, to a certain extent, as being a direct response to Israeli nuclear power, though it has other WMD arsenals to fear, such as Iraq’s. In Syrian strategic thinking, chemical weapons are designed to offset Israel’s conventional superiority in the event of war. A major Israeli concern is—a massive Syrian surprise attack with conventional forces on the Golan Heights. Syria possesses missiles such as the Scud-C (range 500 km) and the Scud-B (range 280 km) and also chemical arsenals for them like the powerful nerve agent VX. 16 These missiles armed with chemical warheads could strike airfields and mobilisation points, incapacitating these areas. With Israel denied air superiority, Syria could retake the Golan Heights. A simultaneous Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza strip alongwith other Arab states attacking would make the situation particularly grave. Such a scenario would be ripe for a nuclear Armageddon.

Further, both Iraq and Iran are known to possess vast quantities of WMD. In case of Iraq, UNSCOM has already shown how elaborate the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programme was, till the Gulf war. The deadliness of the arsenal had already been established, when Iraq used chemical weapons against its Kurdish population in the late 80s. The activities of UNSCOM in the past eight years notwithstanding, the technical knowhow is still present, and Iraq is capable of recreating its lethal arsenal. The important thing to understand here is that, till the time Israel maintains its nuclear arsenal, and the opacity surrounding it, the Arab states and Iran would claim justification for their own WMD stock. Further, Israel’s nuclear arsenal might deter an Arab chemical attack but the danger of creating a linkage between the two categories of weapons is that the nuclear threshold is lowered to scenarios that may not be ‘last resort’ situations.

Danger of Irrational Use

A fear expressed regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons is that they could fall into the hands of irrational decision-makers in the Middle East, especially in a scenario where an Arab state might acquire nuclear weapons. There is belief that in case an Arab state achieves such a status, then in a confrontational situation, theories of deterrence, MAD may not work. One side assuming the inevitability of war may decide to launch a pre-emptive strike at the other’s nuclear forces.

On the other hand, an equally convincing argument would be that the high price as a consequence of mistakes in a nuclear weapons scenario, can also force parties to reconsider their course of action, and can also lead to pull backs, in spite of a loss of face. The US had withdrawn from the Bay of Pigs, likewise the Soviet Union withdrew their missiles from Cuba. 17

Risk of Actual Use

The introduction of nuclear weapons in an already hostile region could increase the possibility of actual use of nuclear weapons in a tense situation. The continuous hostility of varying levels over the past five decades, might lead to the inclusion of nuclear and other WMD in existing “war-fighting” doctrines. 18 If the states in the region see WMD simply as weapons to be used in a conflict, the probability of these weapons being used increases drastically.

The Arabs have tried to counter Israel’s nuclear superiority, by developing a sizeable chemical and biological weapons arsenal. The greater the number of powers in a region possessing WMD, the greater the risk of escalation. Wars in history have more often than not been limited; but the main reason for this has been constraints due to resources and technological know-how. Instances are very rare of a war being limited due to considerations of the consequences of existing capabilities. 19 The indiscriminate effect of Weapons of Mass Destruction makes it very difficult to keep a war involving such weapons, limited.

Development of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

The development of low yield tactical nuclear weapons is another source of risk and tension in the region. There are reports of artillery battalions being equipped with nuclear shells for 155mm howitzers (and possibly 203mm guns) and nuclear mines being planted on the Golan Heights. 20 Such moves may cause a shift in strategic thinking in Israel towards incorporating both counter value and tactical nuclear weapons together with much reduced conventional forces as a much more effective nuclear deterrent. Technological momentum, institutional inertia alongwith deterrent thinking, might have led Israel into producing tactical nuclear weapons. The risk is that Israeli nuclear weapons may not be weapons of last resort any longer, increasing the danger of nuclear confrontation.

However, recent agreements with its neighbours, combined with growing threats from adversaries like Iran may force Israel to review such a strategy. Tactical nuclear weapons could become less important alongwith a greater emphasis on long-range missile systems.

Another argument is that, in case of a ‘last resort scenario’, for purposes of deterrence, Israel requires a few nuclear bombs, and the aircrafts and missiles to deliver them as well as survive enemy air-strikes. According to Vanunu’s estimates, Israel has the material for 100-200 weapons. This is far more than required for a last resort strategy. It implies that Israel might be willing to use nuclear weapons for less than last resort strategies. Future leaders may have less respect for the nuclear taboo, and may refuse to see the nuclear bomb as only a last resort, thereby increasing the risk. On the other hand, it could also be argued that development of battlefield weapons would not have the cataclysmic effects of bombing population centers.

Nuclear Deterrence Against Terrorists

Many of the threats that Israel has faced have not been influenced by the fact that it is a nuclear power. Atomic weapons cannot deter guerrilla attacks and they also cannot help in civil wars like the one Israel was involved in Lebanon. It could thus be argued that in the last 25 years, though there have been no conventional wars, Israel has still been forced into various other conflicts, which have threatened its security, and its atomic arsenal has been ineffectual.

The Israeli nuclear doctrine is still based on the last resort option, though there have been moves towards battlefield nuclear capability also. But in situations that are less than last resort, deterrence has not really worked, even after taking into account any battlefield strategies that Israel might have developed. Further weakening of the deterrent has taken place as Israel is in control of Arab lands. This weakening has occurred as Israel’s occupation is not just military but also national, ideological and territorial. The goal of conflict resolution is not helped by Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

The Pre-Emptive Strike Option

In 1981, Israel successfully bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor. But in its goal of denying nuclear capability to anyone else in the Middle East, it can no longer attempt such pre-emptive air strikes. The most likely candidates to threaten Israel are Iran (which recently tested its Shahab-3 long range missile), Syria, and to a lesser degree, Iraq. At least the first two have undertaken measures like concealment, dispersion, hardening and installation of air defence equipment to prevent any Israeli air strikes. Since pre-emption is ruled out, therefore Israel may be forced to adopt a ‘launch on warning’ posture as it does not have the luxury of waiting to assess the damage from a first strike before responding.

In turn Iran, Iraq or Syria, lacking secure second strike forces of their own would be under great pressure to launch their missiles first—another first strike posture. There could thus be a hair trigger alert scenario. The possibility of nuclear war breaking out by accident or design would be great and would place intolerable strain on Israel’s freedom of military movement and civilian morale.

Environmental Costs

Environmental costs and nuclear accidents are among the biggest risks of a nuclear programme. And in a small country like Israel, even the slightest accident could put a major proportion of the population in danger. A Chernobyl size accident could put the entire country at peril. Another worrying factor is that even for incorporating general safety measures there are high costs, which the government might avoid.

According to internal government reports, the Dimona nuclear reactor is suffering severe damage after 35 years of operation. 21 The government is loath to decommission the reactor thereby increasing the chances of an accident. As it is there have been numerous reports of illnesses caused to technicians and their families due to accidents at the facility. Analysis from a Russian satellite imagery (1989) shows that the installation has a major pollution problem. The area just west of the reactor is unnaturally barren. This is the sector where the waste treatment facility is located and where the toxic byproducts appear to be stored. Safe disposal of toxic wastes is another problem, and here again Israel’s territorial size is a drawback as any waste treatment facility would not be far away from a population centre. Till the time the Dimona reactor is not decommissioned, the risks of nuclear accidents, and environmental pollution would continue to grow.

Economic Costs

The secrecy surrounding the Israeli nuclear weapons programme has ensured that no actual figures are available. Since the late 1950s, vast resources and funds have been transferred to the Negev desert for the development of nuclear installations there. In the initial years this was kept secret even from the top brass of the Israeli Defence Forces, mainly because the funds meant for conventional military forces were siphoned off to Dimona. 22

Since Israel’s programme is a covert one, the economic costs are greater. Considerable resources are needed for camouflage, concealment and deception. For the same reason, legitimate exports from the nuclear sector are not possible. On the other hand the nuclear project has provided a boost for the development of science and technology. The industrial sector has benefited, especially areas like aeronautics, telecommunications, and computers. Nuclear energy has also been used for the desalination of water in the Negev desert, which has made the desert ‘bloom’.

Israel’s programme is comparatively small scale, so its budget for the nuclear sector is correspondingly low. But with Israel’s limited population, the human resources costs are probably high, as the same technically skilled people could have been more productive in other areas. Given the necessity of its nuclear programme and its opacity, the economic costs have to be borne. But these costs have certainly not had a crippling or harmful effect on the economy, though the massive annual American assistance has certainly played an important part in this regard.

Compromising Democracy

Israel’s nuclear opacity is more than a national security strategy. In fact it is embedded into its culture and society. The basic ideas behind this cultural and social phenomenon are — it is vital to Israel’s security to possess nuclear weapons; Arabs should not be allowed to acquire them; Israel cannot make an open case for nuclear weapons; the nuclear issue should be kept out of the public discourse; that the issue should be dealt with exclusively on the most classified level, and administered by anonymous professionals; that the opacity has served Israel well and there is no alternative to it. The nuclear arsenal is simply not on the public agenda.

Consequently, Israel’s democratic institutions, the Knesset, the press, the political parties, and the academia also have left this issue out of their agenda. They have ignored their democratic responsibilities — checking, debating, informing, overseeing and critiquing — in the face of the nuclear issue.

Israel has a lively political culture characterised by vigorous debates on every issue, including other sensitive defence matters. This is the essence of democracy in Israel. Opacity on the nuclear issue marks a failure of democracy. Israel is the only Western democracy, which has a military censor overseeing the publication of writings dealing with security issues. In recent years the censorship has diminished, but not on the nuclear issue. The censor strengthens the nuclear opacity in two ways. Firstly, it reinforces the code of silence by forbidding any serious discussion of nuclear policies. Secondly, the office’s existence means any material that is published appears to carry the government’s message.

On such a fundamental issue, Israel avoids making accountable and public decisions. Nuclear opacity has allowed Israel to make practical decisions without addressing crucial long-term questions.

Issue of Perceptions

Israel has always sought to strengthen nuclear deterrence so that an enemy state would realise that a first strike would be irrational and suicidal for it. In this regard it has to convince potential adversaries that it maintains both, the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

With respect to capacity its adversaries need to be convinced that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is distinctly usable. Should Israel’s nuclear weapons be perceived by a would be attacker as very high yield, indiscriminate, “city busting” weapons, rather than minimal yield, war fighting weapons, they may not act as a deterrent. In such a case, successful nuclear deterrence may actually vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. Israeli nuclear deterrence thus requires not only second strike capabilities, but also forces that can be used productively in war. But then this leads to the problem mentioned before—that of battlefield weapons lowering the nuclear threshold.

Here it is important to examine the relation between an openly declared nuclear capacity and enemy perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. They argue that a disclosure of its nuclear arsenal would be a rational option for Israel in the sense that it would encourage enemy views of an Israeli force that is sufficiently invulnerable to first strike attacks and is capable of piercing enemy defences. 23 Removing the bomb from the “basement”, it is argued, would heighten enemy perceptions of Israel’s willingness to make good on retaliatory threats.

This criticism of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity does not really hold because there are far too many disadvantages of abandoning such a policy. Such a step has to be seen with respect to the overall situation and the crucial issues involved. Any disclosure would cause incalculable damage to the peace process. Further, the intentions behind such a disclosure would not be for the sake of peace but for purposes of coercion.


The Benefits

This section examines some of the benefits enjoyed by Israel as a consequence of its nuclear arsenal and the opaque nature of this arsenal.

Self Reliance

When Israel’s nuclear programme was first initiated in the mid-50s under Prime Minister Ben Gurion, one of the underlying objectives was to ensure that Israel was self-reliant with respect to its security. The genocide of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust and the sacrifice of thousands more in the War of Independence had proved to the Israeli leadership that Israel would eventually have to fight alone to maintain its nationhood.

For most of the last five decades, Israel has stood isolated in the international arena. Its quest for nuclear weapons began when the leadership realised that none of the superpowers were willing to give it any sort of guarantees. The Arab oil boycott meant that US support would never be unstinting and unconditional. This further stressed the importance of nuclear weapons as a tool of self-reliance. According to Cohen, Eisenstadt, and Bacevich:

“The Jewish experience of powerlessness during 2000 years of exile and persecution, and the activist character of Modern Zionism, have imbued Israelis with an ethos of self-reliance. Central to this ethos is the belief that Israel should not rely on others to guarantee its survival. Self-reliance has provided the impetus behind Israel’s indigenous arms industry—to include its nuclear weapons programme—and its insistence that only Israelis should be responsible for defending their country. 24

As a Tool for Bargaining

The ambiguity of its nuclear option has ensured that Israel is in a strong bargaining position vis-à-vis its main ally, the US. The US has a crucial stake in maintaining the nuclear status quo in the region. Any disclosure by Israel of its nuclear status would increase tensions, wreck the peace process, and most of all, could spark off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Israel has played the ambiguity card quite well since the late 60s and has been able to acquire the latest conventional weapons technology and other major political and economic concessions from the US.

In the 1960s, conventional arms were supplied by the US to Israel to persuade the latter not to go nuclear. By the early seventies, when it was clear that Israel had indeed become a nuclear weapons state, arms supplies to it became even more crucial to ensure that in case of a conflict Israel would be strong enough to defend itself with conventional weapons, and without resorting to its nuclear arsenal. In the early stages of the Yom Kippur war, US arms supplies to Israel were slow and sluggish, while the Israeli army was facing setbacks both on the Suez and the Golan fronts. At midnight Oct 8-9, Premier Golda Meir gave the orders to activate Israel’s Doomsday weapons. 25 Though this has never been publicly confirmed, there has always been speculation that when US intelligence agencies learnt about this, supplies of conventional arms were immediately speeded up, in order to avoid the war taking a nuclear dimension, which would eventually involve both superpowers.

Nuclear Weapons to Offset Conventional Weapons Inferiority

Israel took recourse to nuclear weapons also because of the predicted conventional weapons superiority of the Arab armies, both qualitatively and quantitatively. This has become a reality today, at least in the quantitative, if not qualitative sense. Without a nuclear umbrella, even a temporary Arab conventional superiority could have been fatal for Israel.

Till the Six Day War (1967), Israel’s military superiority was unquestioned. The reverses of the Yom Kippur War (1973) were a sign of changing times. The same Israeli airforce, which had practically demolished the entire Egyptian airforce in the first few hours of the 1967 war, was neutralised for the early part of the 1973 war. Israeli frontlines on the Golan Heights and the Sinai were similarly smashed by Syrian and Egyptian armour. Though eventually Israel emerged victorious, it was clear that its conventional superiority was on the wane. Nuclear protection was now essential to deter another conventional Arab attack, which could well be decisive. Nuclear weapons are now also meant to alleviate Israel’s increasing expenditures on conventional weapons. There has to come a time when Israel cannot keep up technologically in the conventional arms race. In the words of Moshe Dayan, after the Yom Kippur War:

“Israel has more or less reached its quantitative limits. In the long run, it will be difficult for Israel to increase the size of its army; to add a large number of airplanes and tanks (this means not only a very high financial outlay with the growing sophistication and development of arms, but also prolonged periods of military service for many young people); to simultaneously continue a normal way of life, civilian economic activity, education, absorption of immigrants, settling the country and industrialisation. Therefore, Israel must guarantee the balance of power against the rapidly expanding Arab military forces by increasing the quality of its arms—a quality that will ensure that every Arab attempt to conquer and destroy Israel will end with the destruction of its enemies. 26

In this sense, Israel’s nuclear arsenal has succeeded in neutralising any conventional weapons superiority that the Arabs may enjoy, in the present or in the future. With Israeli territory and population only a fraction of the combined Arab territory and population, relying on conventional weapons would be disastrous in the long run.

Peace and Stability in the Middle East

Israel’s nuclear posture has had its effect on peace negotiations and Arab attitudes after 1973. Though still ambiguous, Israel’s nuclear option became more or less accepted after 1973. Over the next 20 years, this changed Arab perceptions and helped moderate Palestinian demands. The Arabs realised that war was futile and that the Arab-Israeli conflict could only be resolved through negotiations. Though the principle issues remain unresolved, there are no longer any strategies for an all out Arab attack.

Egypt took the first step. During the Camp David peace talks, Egypt ignored the nuclear issue, understanding that stressing it could wreck the negotiations. In fact, during his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Prime Minister Sadat confided to the then Israeli Defence Minister Ezer Weizmann, that his decision to make peace with Israel was considerably influenced by the latter’s nuclear arsenal. 27

Most Arab states are in fact, far more concerned with Iran/Iraq’s nuclear ambitions than Israel’s ‘bomb in the basement’. Many Arabs actually concede in private, the positive and stabilising effects of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, if only because of their hopes that these weapons would make it easier for Israel to make the necessary territorial concessions in return for peace. 28

In the last few years, as part of the ongoing peace process, Israel has withdrawn, from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of its land for peace deal. The process was initiated in the late 70s when Israel gave back the Sinai to the Egyptians. Its nuclear deterrent has no doubt given it the requisite confidence and security to take such a step.

Deterrent Against an Arab Attack

Probably the main factor behind the development of the Israeli nuclear arsenal has been to deter any Arab attack, whether conventional or non-conventional (NBC). It has been argued that Israel’s nuclear arsenal has been largely irrelevant to the process of war initiation in the region. But in the present situation, Israel’s nuclear status does play a major role in deterring a concerted attack by an Arab coalition. As mentioned in an earlier section, the Arab states have a huge arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, the means to deliver them, and also a sizeable conventional arms arsenal. Whatever the internal dynamics and rivalries of the Arab states, the very presence of such deadly WMD in the Arab inventories requires an Israeli counter-capability, to take care of any eventuality in the future.

It is often stated that nuclear weapons could not deter an Arab invasion in 1973. The territorial objectives of Egypt and Syria were limited to recovering the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights lost to Israel in 1967, and not the destruction of the Jewish state. More importantly, their broader political objective was to get the superpowers involved in the Arab-Israel conflict. It has been argued that since the objectives did not include the destruction of Israel, it could not use nuclear weapons as they were only for a last resort scenario. In reality, at that time, Israel’s ambiguous nuclear deterrent was still quite weak, at least as perceived by the Arabs. Another argument is that it is possible that the Arabs invaded in 1973 because they believed the Israelis had not really developed a reliable deterrent force. So they might have decided to try and recover their territories before Israel did in fact acquire these capabilities.

Israel’s nuclear arsenal, though still opaque, is now accepted by everyone as forming an effective deterrent. If it has actually developed low yield tactical nuclear weapons, in the form of tank shells, land mines, etc, it means that Israel now has counterforce nuclear capability. Its nuclear arsenal can now be used in the battlefield. In the event of a 1973 type Arab invasion, Israel may not hesitate to use nuclear weapons—the Arabs know it, and this will deter them. It must be understood that Israel’s nuclear arsenal and Arab perceptions of it have changed since 1973, strengthening the deterrence.

Effectiveness as Weapons of Last Resort

As the Samson Option, i.e., weapons of last resort, Israel’s nuclear option reinforces the sense of security felt by the common man in Israel. The apprehension that Israel would perpetually face the threat of destruction is no longer there. Of course, Israel’s conventional military might also plays a major role, but possession of the ultimate weapon (ultimate, as of now) ensures that the Third Temple 29 is no longer in mortal danger. Without this arsenal, threats to Israel’s existence could become very real.

A last resort threat is credible enough to deter a general war with unlimited goals. But it also risks the possibility of a limited war turning into an unlimited war, with the threat of nuclear weapons being invoked in the middle of a war. The threat may or may not be correctly perceived by the opponents, depending upon the effectiveness of the attackers’ command and control systems. 30

Balance of Power in the Middle East

Israel’s opaque nuclear posture helps maintain a nuclear status quo in the Middle East. Any attempt at an official disclosure or testing of weapons would open the nuclear Pandora’s box in the Middle East. The Arabs have lived with this situation for three decades. As mentioned earlier, moderate Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf, are more concerned about Iranian/Iraqi nuclear ambitions while becoming quite complacent about Israel’s nuclear ambiguity. Some Arabs, especially Palestinians, even see the Israeli undeclared deterrent as playing a positive and stabilising role in promoting the cause of Arab-Israeli peace, because it gives Israel the courage to make tough territorial concessions from a position of strength. Therefore, behind common Arab public demands that Israel sign the NPT and place its nuclear establishment under IAEA safeguards, lies considerable flexibility and political realism. 31

A change in the ambiguous posture would start an intensified arms race and disrupt the fragile peace process. Until there is comprehensive peace in the region, it might be best not to acknowledge the nuclear issue at all.

Further, an ambiguous posture by Israel helps lessen the dissent against the Arab governments by their populations, frustrated by the lack of Israeli concessions in the peace process. Disclosure of the Israeli nuclear option would mean demands by Arab populations that their governments take immediate counter measures. 32 The fact that the Arabs have no way of matching the Israeli nuclear arsenal (except perhaps through their unstable chemical and biological weapons arsenal), would only heighten Arab insecurity leading to increasing dissatisfaction against “impotent” governments.

Some experts have rightly claimed that the build up of arms by the Arabs and the other Middle East power, Iran, over the past five decades has not just been due to their rivalry with Israel. The arms race in the Middle East has more to do with the intra Arab and Persian rivalry— Iraq has faced threats from Iran and Syria and vice versa, Egypt from Libya and Sudan, Syria from Turkey. 33 Having said that, it is accepted that with today’s background of the peace process, any disclosure of nuclear capability by Israel would not only break down the peace process, but also have the consequence of setting off a ruinous armaments and WMD acquisition programme by the Arab states.



Israel’s nuclear programme has been part of the Zionist phase in the Jewish state’s history—a period of grand nation-building projects. In a sense, this has been the ultimate Zionist project, designed to ensure the very existence of Israel.

Israel’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons and its determination to prevent the Arab states from doing the same has to be understood in the context of guaranteeing the survival of the Jewish state. The official raison-d’-etre for Israel’s nuclear option is to convince the Arabs that the Middle East conflict can only be solved at a political and not at an existential level.

Jewish history suggests that concern about threats to the existence of Israel would always be present, and this would be taken as justification for the permanent retention of the nuclear arsenal — continuance of the status quo. In the present circumstances, Israel’s bombs will remain in the ‘basement’, and the establishment will keep repeating that they would not be the first to ‘introduce’ nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

They could be right, but only in the Talmudic sense. The British had already stored bombs in Cyprus. Ships of America’s Sixth Fleet regularly patrolled the Eastern Mediterranean fully armed with nuclear weapons. So the Israelis could never be the first, or even the second. But they are the third. 34

With such an existential threat, the need for nuclear weapons has been there since independence, and it will continue to be there. In such a situation, the costs are far outweighed by the benefits of the nuclear arsenal. As it is, even if Israel had not pursued the nuclear option, its continued occupation of Arab territories and Palestinian homelands, would still have ensured its isolation and major costs. One of the difficulties of such a cost-benefit analysis is that each argument for, or against the policy has a seemingly valid counter-argument, reflecting the complexity of the issue. The bottom line is — when there is threat to the very existence of the Jewish state and also to a considerable proportion of the Jewish people, whatever the costs of a nuclear arsenal, they would have to be borne.



*: Student, International Relations  Back.

Note 1: Marvin Miller, “Israel”, in Eric Arnett (ed) Nuclear Weapons after the Comprehensive Test Ban (Oxford/SIPRI, 1996), p. 63. According to Ian Black and Benny Morris, ‘Disseminating rumours and spreading deliberate disinformation were familiar aspects of Israeli nuclear weapons policy’. Ian Black and Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars: A History of Israel’s Intelligence Services (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), p. 440.  Back.

Note 2: Yair Evron, “Opaque Proliferation: The Israeli Case”, in Benjamin Frankel (ed) Opaque Nuclear Proliferation (London: Frank Cass, 1991), p. 45.  Back.

Note 3: Masada Complex: A state of mind in Israel reminiscent of the ancient defence of the Masada fortress symbolising resistance to capitulation until the last defender.  Back.

Note 4: Israeli scientists had made advances in weaponry, especially in guidance control mechanisms perfected in the early 60s in the Israeli made Shavit and Jericho missile system. The Israelis also had a hand in the design of the French bomb, its design and development. See Steve Weisman and Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb, (New York: Times Books, 1981).  Back.

Note 5: William Quandt, Peace Process (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1993), p.57.  Back.

Note 6: Edwin S. Cochran, “Deliberate Ambiguity: An Analysis of Israel’s Nuclear Strategy”, Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, September 1996, p. 326.  Back.

Note 7: Ibid., p. 327.  Back.

Note 8: David Albright, Plutonium And Highly Enriched Uranium 1996 (SIPRI: Oxford University Press), p.263.  Back.

Note 9: Ephraim Karsh & Martin Navias, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons & Middle East Peace”, in Ephraim Karsh (ed) Between War And Peace, (London: Frank Cass), p. 87.  Back.

Note 10: Avner Cohen & Marvin Miller, “How to Think About-and Implement-Nuclear Arms Control in the Middle East”, in Brad Roberts (ed) Weapons Proliferation in the 90s, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995), p. 361.  Back.

Note 11: Avner Cohen, “The Nuclear Issue in the Middle East in a New World Order”, in Ephraim Enbar & Shmuel Sandler (ed) Middle Eastern Security: Prospects for an Arms Control Regime, (London: Frank Cass, 1995), p. 57.  Back.

Note 12: Avner Cohen & Joseph Pilat, “Assessing Virtual Nuclear Arsenals”, Survival, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring 1998, p. 136.  Back.

Note 13: Avner Cohen & Marvin Miller, “How to Think About-and Implement-Nuclear Arms Control in the Middle East”, in Brad Roberts (ed) Weapons Proliferation in the 90s, p. 364.  Back.

Note 14: Avner Cohen, “The Nuclear Issue in the Middle East in a New World Order”, in Ephraim Enbar & Shmuel Sandler (ed) Middle Eastern Security: Prospects for an Arms Control Regime (London: Frank Cass, 1995), p. 57.  Back.

Note 15: Ephraim Karsh & Martin Navias,“Israeli Nuclear Weapons & Middle East Peace”, in Ephraim Karsh (ed) Between War And Peace, (London: Frank Cass), p. 78.  Back.

Note 16: Jonathan Marcus, “Israel’s Security Dilemmas”, The Washington Quarterly,Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 1999, p. 37.  Back.

Note 17: Shai Feldman, Israeli Nuclear Deterrence: A Strategy for the 1980s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), ch. 4, p. 145.  Back.

Note 18: Ibid., ch. 4, p. 149.  Back.

Note 19: Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1959), p. 311.  Back.

Note 20: Yezid Sayigh, “Middle Eastern Stability and the Proliferation of WMD”, in Ephraim Karsh, Martin S. Navias, Phillip Sabin (ed) Non-Conventional Weapons Proliferation in the Middle East: Tackling the Spread of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p.191.  Back.

Note 21: Harold Hough, “Israel Reviews its Nuclear Deterrent”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 1998, p.11.  Back.

Note 22: Gabriel Schoenfield, “Thinking About the Unthinkable in the Middle East”, Commentary, December 1998, p.  Back.

Note 23: Louis Rene Beres, “Israel’s Bomb in the Basement: A Second Look”, in Ephraim Karsh (ed) Between War And Peace, (London: Frank Cass), p.114.  Back.

Note 24: Eliot A. Cohen, Michael J. Eisenstadt, & Andrew J. Bacevich, “Israel’s Revolution in Security Affairs”, Survival, vol. 40, no. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 49-50.  Back.

Note 25: “How Israel got the Bomb”, Time, April 12, 1976, p. 13.  Back.

Note 26: Edwin S. Cochran, “Deliberate Ambiguity: An Analysis of Israel’s Nuclear Strategy”, Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, September 1996, p. 327.  Back.

Note 27: Ephraim Karsh & Martin Navias, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons & Middle East Peace”, in Ephraim Karsh (ed) Between War And Peace, (London: Frank Cass), p. 86.  Back.

Note 28: Ibid., p.87.  Back.

Note 29: Third Temple: A symbolic reference to the state of Israel. The first two temples were destroyed by the invading Babylonians around 586 BC and by the Romans in AD 70.  Back.

Note 30: Yair Evron, “Opaque Proliferation: The Israeli Case”, in Benjamin Frankel (ed) Opaque Nuclear Proliferation (London: Frank Cass, 1991), p. 58.  Back.

Note 31: Avner Cohen, “The Nuclear Issue in the Middle East in a New World Order”, in Ephraim Enbar & Shmuel Sandler (ed) Middle Eastern Security: Prospects for an Arms Control Regime (London: Frank Cass, 1995), p. 53. According to the author, there were tacit indications that awareness among the Palestinians of Israel’s nuclear deterrent, helped push them towards peace talks, and the realisation that they would have to make a deal with the Israelis on terms less favourable than they had hoped for. This agreement was at the background of the Oslo Accord. This impression was formed between personal communication between Avner Cohen and Arab strategists. See his “Did Nukes nudge the PLO?”, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (December1993), pp. 11-13.  Back.

Note 32: An example of such a situation would be the public insecurity and the protests against their government by the people in Pakistan, soon after the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998. Pakistan did respond, and this somewhat calmed the populace. But what about the Arab governments, what would they do in case of an Israeli disclosure, through an announcement or tests. Their governments would be in real danger; in countries like Egypt this would be the perfect opportunity for the extremist bloc to mount an offensive against the government.  Back.

Note 33: See Ephraim Karsh and Martin Navias, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons and Middle East Peace”, in Ephraim Karsh (ed) Between War And Peace, (London: Frank Cass), pp. 75-92.  Back.

Note 34: Steve Weisman & Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb, (New York: Times Books, 1981), p.128  Back.