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The Israeli Nuclear Option

An Analysis

Omair Ahmad


The acquisition of Nuclear Weapons by Israel and more importantly the silence that has surrounded the whole operation has been one of the most successful political games played on the world stage. For many reasons Israeli leaders, beginning with David Ben-Gurion up until the present day have felt that Israel has needed the absolute weapon, but could not necessarily make such an acquisition publicly. Today it is acknowledged that Israel has been in the possession of nuclear capability since the mid-60s. What is surprising is not the fact of the revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician at the Dimona complex, became headline news in October 1986, but that Israel was able to continue on with its policy of nuclear ambiguity or opacity. So much so that Shimon Perez could, on 22nd December 1995 at a press conference, speak of "giving up the nuclear option" two years after a comprehensive Middle East peace Treaty, without acknowledging or denying that Israel had Nuclear Weapons in the first place.

The purpose of this paper is to look into four factors of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Firstly, it is necessary to examine why, despite the political and economic costs, Israel went in for a Nuclear Weapons program in the first place. Secondly, the paper shall examine whether the program actually gave Israel the benefits anticipated by its leaders. Lastly, the situation of Israel's program in today's context shall be examined, and it shall be probed as to whether the basic assumptions that drove the nuclear policy in the beginning still hold true, and if so to what extent and to what outcome?

The Need for the Absolute Weapon:

Israel has certain characteristics peculiar to itself which, taken together, make the acquisition of Nuclear Weapons seemingly natural. Part of this is historical and psychological, and part has to do with the strategic position that Israel finds itself in.

Firstly, Israel considers itself an "indispensable nation". Its apprehensions about its legitimacy to exist are high enough to consider the existence of other countries to be of very secondary, if not no, consequence. This has been basically shaped by the historical processes of World War II and also of the creation of the state of Israel. The Nazi "Final Solution" with all of its horrifying reality has left a permanent impression on the minds of all Jewish people, as well as on the rest of the world. Having gone through such a traumatic affair, it is not surprising that now that there is a Jewish state after so long, its people would consider it special. Special, though, is an understatement, to many Israelis it is the Promised Land, and the Third Temple (the first two being destroyed by the Babylonian and then Roman invaders). The security of the state justifies pretty much everything. For example, although it is widely acknowledged that police forces all across the world use interrogation techniques that could be classified as "torture", Israel is the only country whose Supreme Court has actually justified it. What this means is that when it comes to the Nuclear Weapons program is that there is unlikely to be much of a public review of policies considered to protect the State of Israel. The creation of Israel also left an impact on this type of thought. It can, and often is said that the founding of Israel in the way it was done was both illegal and immoral. Obviously though, one will not find an Israeli echoing this, the rights of Palestinians and other peoples and states bordering Israel are considered peripheral at best. A glaring example of this is evident in the writings of such eminent people as Louis Rene Beres who goes on to argue that the Oslo Agreement is null and void according to International Law ("International Law requires Prosecution, Not Celebration of Arafat," University of Detroit Mercy Law Review, Summer 1994). It is also evident from Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in June, 1981. And in comments such as those made by General Uzi Dayan, the Israeli army's planning chief in December 1994. He spoke of "the significant advances in Iran's nuclear capabilities" and that Israel, "must prepare for decisions aimed at removing this threat." This is not to say that Israeli security policy is completely irrational, rather it is to show that to Israel the destruction of its neighboring states by nuclear attack, if it feels threatened is a justifiable option. In fact the Israeli policy is very sane, it just prioritizes the territorial integrity and security of its populace above everything else.

A second part to this is that Israel considers itself to be part of the technologically advanced West rather than that of the Middle East. Moreover it has been its technological advancement that has led to its ability to win wars in which it was massively outnumbered. In the Six Day War Israel was able to destroy the air forces of its adversaries before they could even take off. Although after the October war of 1973, the technological gap has narrowed, Israel still retains quite an edge over its enemies. Originally seen as a sign of technological superiority and a tool of the modern, advanced West, it would have been surprising indeed if Israel had not gone for it. Part of the reason that Israel justifies its claims of legitimacy over that of the former Arab inhabitants is the fact that it has used technology and hard work to make the desert bloom, in ways that none of its neighbors have proved to be capable of. If technology is so much a part of the Israeli culture, then it would also be obvious that it would also be part of its war making strategies.

There is also a question of strategic depth. There has been an oft repeated Arab claim to "drive the Jews into the sea." Although this never has never come close to happening, nevertheless Israel is a geographically small country and a strong enough attacking force could literally do so. Simply put, Israel is just too small to afford an invasion. Moreover after the 1973 October War it was realized that Israel might not win the next war or wars quite so easily as it had the previous ones. It was thought that it was necessary now to halt the enemy advancement before it actually encroached on Israeli territory. The only way to do so comprehensively was by using nuclear weapons. This obviously did not succeed in the 1973 War from deterring Egypt, but Israel was able to hold the Golan and its forces were not overrun. Time, April 1976, states that at that time 13 nuclear weapons had been dispatched to their arsenals and might have been used had things turned out slightly differently.

Another reason that Israel was forced to go for the nuclear option was because of the Cold War. In Cold War accounts the final count was how many atomic bombs does a country have behind it. This could either be directly or indirectly, through an alliance system, such as NATO. Israel tried to search for a modus vivendi with any of the great powers, it became apparent very quickly that none of the powers wanted to alienate the Middle East countries with their oil and geopolitical importance for an alliance with Israel. Israel courted the US initially but was denied a place in the treaties that had already been established by the West in the Middle East and NATO also did not wish to accept it. Later after the 1967 War, proposals for a US-Israeli defense treaties were conditional on the withdrawal from territories captured by Israel during the war. This cooled Israeli enthusiasm considerably, and by this time Israel already had nuclear capability. What Israel settled for, instead, was access to weaponry from the US and the European powers, most significantly from France. It was France that agreed to sell Israel a nuclear reactor and the technology it needed to manufacture nuclear weapons in the 1950s.


As stated above it was the French that gave the Israelis the nuclear edge by supplying them with a nuclear reactor. This happened because of a couple of situations in which the French and the Israelis ended up on the same side: the Suez crisis, the war in Algeria in which the FLN were given help by Nasser, making Egypt a common enemy. The Dimona reactor, or more properly known as the Negev Nuclear Research Center, originally an 18 MW reactor was supplied by the French as part of their nuclear cooperation program begun in 1956. It is also speculated that the nuclear test done by France in 1960 was a combined one, therefore giving Israel the capabilities of a Nuclear Weapon State without having to face the criticism. Scattered reports also point to a condition in which Israel may have got its hands on the results of US testing done in the 50s and 60s. Despite the knowledge and the Dimona reactor Israel still needed uranium fuel for its reactor as well as heavy water to permit fission of uranium for the production of plutonium. Israel got the heavy water from Norway, 200 tons worth, in the pledge of using it for peaceful purposes only. The uranium was a little more difficult and came from more than one source. In 1968 it received 200 tons of processed Uranium from Antwerp, and by 1972 Israel itself was producing uranium as a by-product from its three phosphoric acid plants. It is also thought that Israel obtained more Uranium from South Africa and the US. Certainly the relationship with South Africa continued for quite some time afterward and a satellite recorded a flash off the coast of South Africa that might or might not have been a combined nuclear test. Relying on Vanunu's statements Israel was producing weapons grade plutonium by 1966, and by 1973 had more than enough to be able to assemble 13 nuclear bombs. Going by his statements it has come to be believed that actual power output of the Dimona might have reached as high as 150 MW. This would also mean that anywhere from 400-650 kilograms of Weapons Grade Plutonium could have been extracted by the end of 1999, enough for up to 130 nuclear bombs with yields as high as 100 kilotons (8 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast.)

Nuclear weapons, though, are useless without an efficient delivery system. This began in 1957 when the two countries began cooperating in the field of missile technology also. The outcome of this was that the Dimona plant plus a plutonium extraction unit came to be in 1957 and later the Jericho I and the Jericho II missiles were built with ranges of 600 km and 1500 km respectively. By 1968 the US had also agreed to sell F-4 Phantoms to Israel, and these were converted to be able carry nuclear weapons. Today Israel has the Mirage 2000 jets as well as F-15s and F-16s in addition to these. Moreover its space launch vehicle could be altered to carry a payload of about 500 kg to distances up to 7800 km, or ICBM range.


Israel has had Nuclear Weapons end for a long time now, and yet there has been neither a test nor discussion on the subject. The Israeli stance was best articulated by Premier Levi Eshkol in 1968, when he said, "Israel will not be the first nation to introduce Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East". A proviso was added by Prime Minister Rabin in 1974, "It also cannot afford to be the second." This nuclear ambiguity or opacity has lain at the heart of the Israeli nuclear option and has served them well, especially with the US. With the Kennedy administration the Israelis had problems when it came to nuclear non-proliferation issues and inspections of the Dimona reactor but after Kennedy's assassination Johnson's more realpolitik outlook came as a relief. Moreover, the Israelis used the ambiguity of their nuclear weapons program as a great bargaining chip to access US and European arms. It was believed, and continues to be believed, that the better conventional arms the Israelis have the less will be there chances of using Nuclear Weapons in a threatened position. From receiving tanks from the Johnson administration to the care, attention and payment made during the Gulf War, the US has handled Israel very carefully, never pushing it to sign the NPT with as much vigor as it could have. Partially this is because the US knows that Israel will not give up its nuclear option, located as it is in a sea of enemies, and partially because ambiguity/opacity gives both sides a convenient excuse not to bring up the topic.

The US one would have understood, but the compliance the Arab states give to the Israeli policy of silence is also interesting. Although the issue is raised, in fact the Arms Control and Regional Security forum has become deadlocked over it, nevertheless there is never a truly formal discussion on it. Partially this is because one cannot discuss an issue when the other party will not even allow it to be raised, and partially it is because the Arabs cannot afford it, either monetarily or politically. The open disclosure of Israel's nuclear program would lead to immediate political problems for all the governments of the neighboring states as the popular demand would be for a construction of their own Nuclear Weapons. This would be enormously expensive, and either way, going for a program or desisting from it would be a sure way to suicide for any of the players. Moreover, the divide is not just between the Arabs and the Israelis. There is also the internecine hatred between the Arabs themselves as well as the Persians (Iran) and the Arabs. The countries closest to acquiring Nuclear weapons were also Iraq and Iran and none of the Middle Eastern States wishes to kowtow to the regimes in power there. At least with Israel there is the knowledge that coercion will not go too far beyond an extended defense position, there is no such guarantee with the rest.

So the Israelis have got arms and they have had peace, in other words all that they had planned, seemingly. But a closer look shows also another picture. Nuclear Weapons were not able to prevent the 1973 October War waged by Sadat.  In fact, politically, Sadat won the war, although it seemed suicidal. Israel is no longer threatened now to be pushed into the sea, although such statements might one day recur. Nevertheless Nuclear Weapons are in many ways useless in the battles that Israel has to contend with in this time. Against terrorists, whether Palestinian or Israeli, the nuclear option is useless. As long as Israel believes that its principal threat is an external one one, it will believe that deterrence against hostile neighbors will stop them from backing the Palestinians. For better or worse, though, the Palestinian problem is one that the Israelis have themselves created by displacing the Palestinians by buying them out or by using force to vacate them from their ancestral lands. This also remains Israel's greatest security threat, and one that the atomic bomb can do pretty much nothing about. Moreover because of the pullback from occupied lands the Israeli government has now had to face increasing attacks by Israelis themselves. During the Gulf War there was the infamous Temple Mount case where a group of Israeli extremists planned on bombing the Dome of Rock Mosque. The rationale behind it being that the Arab/Muslim nations would retaliate so overwhelmingly that Israel would be forced to use its Nuclear Weapons and once for all destroy its main external threats. In this case the presence of the bomb was actually a grave security threat to the State of Israel. Had such a scenario happened it would have turned the whole of the Middle east into a wasteland, and radioactive fallout would not have made any special detours around Israel.

The second basic threat to Israel is the possession of Chemical and Biological Weapons in the hands of hostile neighbors. These have been referred to as the poor man's atomic bombs, and when the state which is being attacked has a population as small as Israel's located in such a small area then they can be as effective as Nuclear Weapons. Against this Israel's Nuclear capacity stands as a shield of deterrence. But it must be understood that this shield, much like the Cold War shield, is one of Mutually Assured Destruction, and like the old one, as MAD. It certainly will not save the Third Temple, in fact, at best it will be only the "Samson Option", destroying its enemies in its own destruction. This may be acceptable to most Israelis, but since questions are never asked publicly about the Nuclear policy, one may never know how much of the public actually feels that way. Or whether an option in which verifiable checking of Weapons of Mass Destruction in which all such weapons were rendered at least fail-safe would not be what people want. How long will a nation rear its children under the threat of imminent death? If one will not talk about things, it may not be possible to deal with them.

Moreover there are immense environmental costs. The Dimona reactor, according to Avner Cohen in his book "Israel and the Bomb", has had a malfunction so severe that it had to be shut down for some time. A 35-year-old reactor is a dangerous thing to keep running, and with its tiny population in a small area of land, a serious nuclear accident could jeopardize people all across the country.

Israel has also changed. There are heroes who are not soldiers. Israel's most famous rock stars boasts on stage as how he has not obeyed the draft. There are warriors these days clad in business suits as Israel realizes that economic power matters, and the Israeli Army itself is training the youth in business. Israel is moving into the community of nations, and that is a good thing. Nevertheless Israel, for a long time, has considered itself above the  the laws that apply to the rest of the nations, and with the help of the US in the Security Council has been able to ignore criticism. But Israel is now talking peace, overwhelming economic and military strength has given it the confidence to talk of "Land for Peace". It is establishing ties with its neighbors, peace is being seen as an option, not just as a peace between wars. Does Israel as a State looking at its own security, and as a democracy, looking at the interest of its own people, know what it wants with its Nuclear program? It might be time that Israel discuss its weapons policy, if not with the outside world, at least within itself. With greater criticism being raised against the defense establishment, the Israeli people are beginning to question their government. Israel's stance has worked, possibly perfectly, but no solution is eternal and if it remains undiscussed it may just start becoming a problem.