How Israel’s Nuclear Monopoly Affects Proliferation in the Middle East

“What about Israel?” is a question often posed when I lecture about Iran’s nuclear program. I had a chance to address the question head-on at a recent Stimson Center panel discussion on “Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East Beyond Iran.”

It is not news that for past half century, Israel has had a nuclear monopoly in the region. The weapons serve as an ultimate insurance policy for a nation surrounded by much more populous and often antagonistic Muslim states. With their state born out of the Holocaust, Israelis generally embrace nuclear deterrence, even if Israeli law forbids them from acknowledging their arsenal.

Estimates of Israel’s nuclear holdings have not changed for years: about 80-90 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material for up to 200 total warheads. Israel has a triad of delivery options: via F-15 and F-16 aircraft, Jericho-11 and III medium- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, and Dolphin-class submarines purchased from Germany and retrofitted to be nuclear-capable.

Israel’s nuclear program was born of proliferation. In a secret deal in 1957, France agreed to provide a reactor, uranium, and a plutonium reprocessing plant at Dimona, which were supposedly for peaceful purposes. After Charles de Gaulle became French president in 1959, he put an end to his government’s participation. But Israel managed to complete the project on its own. According to Avner Cohen, who has written extensively on the subject, by the 1967 Six-Day War Israel was able to assemble a rudimentary nuclear device. A test explosion may have been carried out in the Indian Ocean in September 1979 in cooperation with South Africa.

While the United States did not assist Israel’s nuclear program, it did acquiesce to it. President John F. Kennedy forced Israel to accept U.S. inspections at Dimona, but without instruments or sampling allowed. Lyndon Johnson was less firm about non-proliferation and accepted Israel’s vague assertion that it would “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” He also accepted Israel’s creative interpretation of the verb “introduce.” This phrase became the trademark of Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity, or amimut.

The U.S. initially tried to force Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty upon its adoption in 1968. The next year, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon reached a secret agreement, marking a de facto end to U.S. pressure. Nixon agreed that the Israeli bomb would be tolerated as long as Israel did not publicly acknowledge having it. All Israeli and U.S. administrations since have adhered to this understanding. For Washington, it is a policy based on realpolitik.

Israel has suggested that it might be willing to join the NPT if it is at peace with all its neighbors and its security was guaranteed. It may seem that these conditions are on the road to being fulfilled, through peace and mutual recognition with Egypt in 1979, with Jordan in 1994, and, via the Abraham Accords in 2020, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and later Sudan. Israel’s borders are still insecure, of course. One might ask if nuclear weapons have much bearing on the troubles Israel faces with Palestinians, Syrians, and Hezbollah. But Israelis believe their security situation would be worse, especially vis-à-vis Iran, if they didn’t have a nuclear ace in the hole.

Israel’s absolute conventional superiority means it does not need to resort to making nuclear threats. On the other hand, the nuclear threat potentially posed by Iran is greater than ever. There is thus no mood in Israel to relax the nuclear deterrent.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has served Israel well. It gains the deterrence benefits of nuclear weapons without having to address inconvenient questions. It may also be that declaring Israel’s nuclear weapons would be provocative, forcing Arab states to respond in some way and upsetting a de facto policy of acquiescence. On the other hand, coming clean would remove the Kafkaesque controls that penalize Israeli citizens and even U.S. officials who expose the truth.

Over the years, Israel’s nuclear weapons have spurred several proliferation efforts. While nations seek nuclear weapons for a mixture of reasons, a desire to balance Israel’s arsenal was a prime motivation for nuclear pursuits by Egypt’s Gamal Nasser in the 1960s, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi beginning in the 1980s, and by Syria earlier this century. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein also had Israel in mind when he started down the nuclear path in the 1970s, but in the next decade rivalry with Iran became his main motivation. Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons was similarly spurred by its neighbor. Balancing Israel was, at most, a secondary consideration for Iran. Today, Iranian leaders talk a great deal about Israel’s nuclear weapons. No doubt they play a larger part today in Iran’s nuclear hedging strategy, given that Iraq is no longer a strategic threat to the Islamic Republic since the U.S. invaded the country two decades ago.

Israel’s nuclear weapons have also been the main motivation for seeking a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Israel’s nuclear program is ostensibly also the main impediment to creating such a zone. Adopting, honoring and, vitally, enforcing a WMD-free zone would resolve regional proliferation issues. However, when Israel sees four Middle Eastern states—Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria—begin nuclear weapons programs despite having signed the NPT, it has reason to doubt that treaties can provide an alternative to the security it sees in its nuclear arsenal.

Source : Stimson

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