The Future of Nuclear Weapons: Israeli Perspectives

Presented at the Ninth Amaldi Conference: Security Questions at the End of the Twentieth Century, Geneva, 21-23 November 1996. (Session IA, The Future of Nuclear Weapons).
The research for this paper was funded by a grant from the Ihel Foundation.
Revised: November 25 1996


The Israeli policy towards nuclear weapons is complex and central to national security and diplomacy, but it is often misunderstood and misconstrued, particularly by opponents of this policy in the region. The complexity is the result of the emphasis placed on two primary policy foundations, which may seem to be inconsistent, but upon deeper understanding, are seen to be reinforcing. These foundations are: 1) The need to maintain a strategic deterrent option based on continued nuclear ambiguity, in o rder to counter threats to national survival; and 2) The importance which Israeli decision makers place on limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, both in the region and on a global basis. The combination of these two fundamental inte rests has determined Israeli policy in this area for the past forty years, and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

1)Maintaining the Ambiguous Deterrent Option
The Israeli nuclear deterrent policy has not changed substantively since the early 1960s, when it was developed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion. This policy is supported by a consensus of the Israeli decision makers and the public, and is linked to the perception that this option is necessary to national survival. The late Shalheveth Freier, who served as the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, described the nuclear deterrent option as providing "a sense of reassurance to Israelis in times o f gloom" and "as possible caution to states contemplating obliterating Israel by dint of their preponderance of men and material."1 More recently, in January 1996, former Foreign Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, declared that in the absence of proven and reliable regional peace agreements, "Israel's nuclear policy, as it is perceived in the eyes of the Arabs, has not changed, will not change and cannot change, because it is a fundamental stand on a matter of survival which impacts all the gene rations to come."2

The Israeli strategic situation is essentially unique. In the Arab-Israeli conflict zone, Israel is a small state, and since the creation of the modern Jewish state in 1948, geographic, demographic, military, and economic asymmetries have played a ce ntral role. In area, Israel consists of less than 21,000 square kilometers (excluding the Judea and Samaria regions of the West Bank, and the Golan Heights), compared to 1 million square kilometers for Egypt and 186,000 square kilometers for Syria. This small size, and the extremely narrow area between the Eastern border and the Mediterranean (15 kilometers in the pre-1967 borders), leave Israel without the strategic depth necessary for absorbing armored and air attacks, and without the ability to recov er and respond. Israel's vulnerability to conventional attack was made clear in 1948, when forces from a number of Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) advanced rapidly and came close to destroying the nascent state. In May 1967, the preparations for war by the Arab states were seen as threatening national survival, and the combined Egyptian and Syrian attacks in October 1973 (the Yom Kippur War) also highlighted Israel's extreme vulnerability. A comprehensive peace agreement and regional securi ty arrangements will lead to changes in Israeli threat perceptions, but until then, Israel will continue to seek compensation for this absence of strategic depth.

The "preponderance of men and equipment" enjoyed by the Arab states is another dimension of the structural asymmetry that led Ben Gurion to develop a nuclear deterrent option in order to insure the survival of Israel. In the 1948/9 war, Israeli casual ties amounted to 1 percent of the entire population. After the war, Arab leaders rejected calls for peace agreements, and declared their intention to increase preparations and resources devoted to the military sector, in order to be able to defeat and de stroy Israel in "the next round".3 Arab oil sales provided a huge reserve to finance the creation and maintenance of massive conventional forces in the states surrounding Israel. Syrian ground forces are continuing to grow, and include 4800 main battle t anks (1400 of which were acquired in the past four years). The Syrian standing army is twice as large as Israel's, and a surprise attack, based on forces in place, and supported by combat aircraft and SSMs with chemical warheads, could prevent mobilizati on of Israeli reserves. Three-quarters of the Israeli ground forces are in the reserves, 5 and unhampered mobilization takes from 48 to 96 hours.

Although Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the Egyptian military has continued to devote billions of dollars in American military aid to the purchase of modern M-1 A-1 main battle tanks and F-16 aircraft, as well as tactical mi ssiles and related systems. In September 1996, Egyptian forces held their largest combined exercises since the 1973 war, in an area near the Sinai desert. Egyptian officials announced that these exercises included simulated canal crossings. From an Isr aeli perspective, these exercises served as a reminder of the continued potential for an Egyptian surprise attack.4

In addition, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the regime pose new dangers. Egypt has stockpiled chemical weapons since the early 1960s, and used them in Yemen. As noted, Syrian is also believed to possess an advanced CW capability , as well as ballistic missiles to deliver them. In 1990, Saddam Hussein threatened to use chemical agents to "incinerate half of Israel", and Iran and Libyan CW capabilities are also threats to the Israeli population. In addition, the potential for the development of biological weapons in the region is growing.

In this threat environment, the deterrence capability provided by a nuclear deterrent option is essential as a "weapon of last resort". Despite claims to the contrary (made by journalists and analysts with little information, and based largely on uni nformed speculation), the evidence indicates that the Israeli nuclear deterrent policy does not include provisions for any kind of nuclear war-fighting or tactical weapons. Israeli ground forces have not acquired equipment or held exercises involving tac tical nuclear weapons, and without such equipment or exercises, such weapons could not be used effectively. In addition, Israel has not used the nuclear potential as a source of political pressure, in any form, in the past 30 years. The nuclear option i s strictly limited to providing a last-resort deterrent.

Decision makers in Jerusalem are also aware of the problems and limitations of deterrence.5 However, as a "weapon of last resort", the deterrence factor is strongest, and the weaknesses are minimized. In the first days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Eg yptian forces did not cross the Sinai and approach the Israeli border, despite the initial breakthroughs that might have made this possible. This is attributed by some to Egyptian awareness of the threat of Israeli nuclear retaliation if the populations centers in Israel were attacked. Similarly, in the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein attacked Israel with Scud missiles armed with conventional warheads, but did use the chemical warheads that had been produced and tested. This is also attributable to the i mpact of Israeli deterrence. Thus, despite the inherent problems, and in the absence of a fundamental change in the threat environment in the region which would make deterrence unnecessary, Israeli officials have not found a better option.

All decision makers that have expressed a public view on this issue have agreed with this position. There are no differences between parties, ideologies, or perspectives on the peace process. On this issue, there is little to distinguish the public statements of late Prime Minister Rabin, former Foreign Ministers Peres and Barak, and leading politicians in the Left such as Yosi Beilin and Yosi Sarid. This position is also supported by a consensus in the Israeli public, and polls showed that close to 90% explicitly approve of the continuation of Israeli nuclear policy, and, unless and until there is a fundamental change in the threat environment, this is unlikely to change.6

As a result of these policies, Israel has been not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or accepted IAEA safeguards on all of its nuclear facilities and materials (some facilities, such as the Nahal Sorek research reactor, are under IAEA superv ision). If it were to accede to the NPT and accept such safeguards, the activities at Dimona would become known, and Israel would lose the ability to maintain its nuclear ambiguity. Israel would then become a non-nuclear state, and would no longer have the deterrence provided by the nuclear option. (Some foreign analysts have suggested that Israel consider a "freeze" on production of plutonium and on activities at Dimona, which would allow for the maintenance of any stockpiles that might have been prod uced in the past. However, it is very difficult to construct verification techniques that would not also reveal the nature of past activities, and thereby destroy the ambiguity.)

In addition, the failures and weaknesses in the NPT/IAEA regime have also impacted on Israeli policies. This system failed in the case of Iraq, allowing Saddam Hussein to come very close to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. The UNSCOM inspecti ons of Iraq that started after the 1991 war have continued for five years, and are still uncovering the details of the Iraqi WMD and ballistic missile capability. This demonstrates the degree to which the Iraqi and similar regimes are capable of obtainin g and applying dual-use technologies, despite their signatures on non-proliferation agreements. A similar process seems to be taking place in the case of Iran. Although Iran, like Iraq, is an NPT signatory, the radical fundamentalist regime is able to p urchase components and materials necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. The limitations of the safeguards and verification system are particularly apparent in the case of large closed non-democratic states which are able to hide illicit facili ties with no public accountability. (This was also seen in the case of North Korea).

The cases of Iran and Iraq also demonstrate the degree to which problem of dual-use technology transfer has yet to be addressed adequately by the international community. Iraq obtained a massive arsenal of chemical weapons, came very close to becomi ng a nuclear power, and was able to extend the range of its ballistic missiles using dual-use technologies obtained from advanced industrial states. This is a major weakness in the non-proliferation framework.

From an Israeli perspective, the NPT regime is also limited by the isolated focus on nuclear weapons. As noted, Israeli national security policies link the threats posed by massive conventional weapons, as well as chemical weapons, biological agents and long-range ballistic missiles to a nuclear deterrent option. The nuclear deterrent policy cannot be detached from the threats to national survival posed by the other forms of weapons of mass destruction. A wider framework, covering the various mili tary technologies, is necessary, and in its absence, the NPT is inadequate.

The Israel policy was reemphasized and strengthened in the context of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Although Israel is not an NPT signatory, and was not directly involved in the activities of this conference, the Israeli policy was a major issue. Egypt led a major campaign to bring international pressure on Israel to alter its policy or to suffer the impact of isolation. This Egyptian publicity campaign and the angry words and actions of officials damaged bilateral relations betwee n Cairo and Jerusalem and also set back the regional peace process significantly. At the time, the Israeli government was led by a Left-wing coalition, headed by the Labor Party, which placed primary interest on the peace process and reaching agreements w ith Jordan, the Palestinians and Syria.7 The Egyptian efforts to disrupt the indefinite extension of the NPT also led to tensions between Washington and Cairo.

As noted, the Israeli position on the NPT is based on fundamental strategic considerations and factors, and the role of the nuclear deterrent option in national survival. As a result, despite the efforts, led by Egypt, to isolate Israel diplomaticall y, and its exceptionality with respect to the universal objectives of the NPT, there is no basis for concluding that Israel will change its policies in this area as long as the threat to national survival continues. Efforts to force Israel to give up its "deterrent of last resort" unilaterally, without major reductions in the Arab conventional and non-conventional weapons, are interpreted by Israeli leaders as evidence that "the Arab states wish to retain the option of waging wars against Israel, with not hing to worry about."8

2)The Israeli Contribution to Strengthening Regional and Global Non-Proliferation Norms and Institutions
According to reliable reports, Israel has operated the Dimona reactor complex since the mid-1960s, but during these three decades, no tests have been conducted9 and no government official has acknowledged the existence of a weapons capability or prog ram. Israel is a reluctant non-NPT signatory, and has been forced by circumstance to adopt its deterrent policies and to maintain a nuclear option to respond to existential threats. The Israel deterrent option remains ambiguous, and this ambiguity has a number of important implications and consequences.

The policy of deliberate ambiguity was devised initially in the late 1950s and 1960s, in order to minimize the impact on the nuclear ambitions of other states in the region and to avoid conflict with the United States government, which actively sought to prevent nuclear proliferation. A number of sources report that in the late 1960s, the United States agreed to drop demands for international inspection of Dimona in exchange for an Israeli pledge not to conduct tests or declare itself a nuclear weapo ns power. Since then, Israel has carefully avoided any action or statement that would alter its status.

Israeli leaders have recognized that an open nuclear program would stimulate pressures in Arab states for the development of their own nuclear capabilities.10 (Efforts to develop nuclear weapons began in Egypt before the Israeli program, but technica l difficulties and resource limitations slowed or blocked these efforts.) An open Israeli program could have led to internal demands in Egypt, Syria and other states for the development of a parallel capability. Many Israeli analysts and policy makers believed that an open capability that was "waved in the faces of the Arabs" would multiply these pressures to a far greater degree than a hidden, ambiguous option. Indeed, it can be argued that with the exception of Iraq (whose nuclear ambitions were lin ked in large part to the conflict with Iran and broader the objectives of Saddam Hussein), this policy has been successful. (When this policy has failed, as in the Iraqi case, Israel has moved to block the ability of hostile states to achieve a nuclear capability. This policy, known as the Begin Doctrine, was most clearly implemented in the 1981 raid on the Iraqi Osirak facility. Israeli policy makers also view of the efforts of the radical Islamic government in Teheran to gain a nuclear weapons capab ility as highly threatening and destabilizing.)

Israeli policy-makers are also aware of the importance of an effective international non-proliferation regime to Israeli security and global stability. Such a regime should not be limited to nuclear weapons, but should include other forms of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents, ballistic missiles, and large-scale conventional capabilities. The dangers of proliferation of WMD of various forms, and humanitarian tragedy that would be caused by a conflict involving WMD, anywhere in the world, are vividly clear to Israeli policy makers, particularly in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust.

As a result of these policies and concerns, Israel was among the signatories of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. The Israeli government was also among the first signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993, despite concerns regardi ng the potential for abuse of challenge verifications. (In contrast, Egypt and Syria, which are known to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons have rejected calls that they sign the CWC, and have pressured other Arab states to do the same.) Israel has also been active in pursuing various forms of confidence and security-building measures (CSBMs) in the multilateral working group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS), which was created in the context of the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Con ference.11

Israeli arms control policy was outlined in some detail by then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, upon the signing of the CWC in January 1993. This policy gives priority to measures designed "to build and nurture mutual confidence between states" and "t o diminish the levels of suspicion, hostility and conflagration", and discussed applications in the area of preventing surprise attacks and in crisis management.12 Specific examples include pre-notification agreements regarding large-scale military maneu vers, hot-lines and regular communications between military commanders, and a center to coordinate naval activities and respond to incidents in the Red Sea. This stage should be followed by prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons, missiles, and t hen, at the final stage, nuclear weapons. In this way, Israel has signaled that it has no desire to maintain a nuclear option or deterrent potential beyond the time this is necessary for national security and survival.

Since the early 1980s, Israel has also joined consensus resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly calling for the creation of Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. The Israeli position is that such a zone should be negotiated freely between the parties, and would include mutual inspection and safeguards, while not being subject to the political and technological limitations of the IAEA system. On October 3 1996, Foreign Minister David Levi restated the Israeli position: "After peaceful re lations and reconciliation have been establishment among all states in the region, Israeli will endeavor to establish in the Middle East a zone free of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as ballistic missiles, based on mutual and effective verification. Negotiations to establish such a zone will commence following the signing of bilateral peace accords between Israel and all states in the region."13 While Israel has viewed the ACRS as the proper framework for the discussion of these issue s, Egyptian demands to base such discussions on the NPT, and demands that Israel accede immediately to the NPT, led to an extended impasse.

In addition, Israeli arms control objectives and policies are reflected in the active role played in the negotiations of the CTBT in the CD, which Israel has joined in mid-1996. Israel was one of the primary participants in the drafting of this agree ment, co-sponsored the United Nations resolution that opened the CTBT for signature, and was one of the first signatories. Other major sponsors and participants, including the United States government, publicly acknowledged the important Israeli contribu tions to the drafting of this treaty. (As a result, Israel parted company with the two other NPT holdouts, India and Pakistan, which are not bound by any of the nuclear limitation agreements.)

Prospects for the Future
As noted, Israeli policy regarding nuclear weapons has been essentially constant since its inception. The role of the nuclear deterrence option in preserving national security and regional stability is well established, and the need to preserve this policy as long as the existential threats continue is widely shared among decision makers. As long as other states in the region maintain a capability for large scale military attacks against Israel, this policy is unlikely to change, regardless of the particular government or coalition in power.

At the same time, Israeli leaders also view the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as an important strategic and idealist objective, and seek to limit the impact of the Israeli capability through a policy of ambiguity, aimed, in the long term, at the elimination of all military threats to national survival in the region. Thus, they can be expected to continue to play a role in the development of regional and global arms control agreements that do not interfere with the Israeli deterrenc e capability.

As noted, Israel, in coordination with the U.S., has consistently sought to prevent the Arab and Islamic states in the region from gaining a nuclear capability. If this were to happen, the region could readily become even more unstable, and the Israe li leadership has expressed the view that rational deterrence cannot be relied upon to prevent radical leaders in Teheran and Baghdad from making decisions that could lead to a nuclear exchange. Academics and non-government analysts have discussed the po tential impact of a multi-polar nuclear Middle East.14 Although these discussions are, of necessity, quite general, they indicate a general expectation that if, at some point, the policy of denial fails, the initial result would not be some form of regio nal arms control, but rather, the strengthening of deterrence policies. As Barak has stated, Israeli deterrence policy has not and will not change in the absence of a fundamental change in the Israeli threat environment.



1 Shalheveth Freier, "A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East and its Ambiance", unpublished manuscript (1992)
2Aluf Benn, "Barak: Nuclear Policy has not and will not change" Haaretz 31 December, 1995, p.10a
3 In 1955, Egypt received a large shipment of modern weapons (armored vehicles and combat aircraft) from the Soviet Union (via Czechoslovakia), thereby triggering the Israeli decision to join the British and French in the Sinai campaign. For Ben Guri on, this was an opportunity to destroy these weapons before they could be employed against Israel.
4 In the past, Iraqi forces have joined in attacks on Israel, and despite the reduction of the Iraqi military capability, the capability to intervene in the Arab-Israeli theater continues and may grew following the end of the embargo against Saddam Hu ssein.
5 There is a vast literature debating the role of deterrence, particularly during the Cold War. For one of the most comprehensive critiques, see R.N. Lebow and J. G. Stein, We All Lost the Cold War, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1994
6 Asher Arian, "Israel and the Peace Process: Security and Political Attitudes in 1993", Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Memorandum No. 39, Tel Aviv University, February 1993, p.12
7 Gerald M. Steinberg, "Middle East Peace and the NPT Extension Decision", The NonProliferation Review, Fall 1996. Analysts noted that the Egypt had signed the 1979 Treaty and conducted normal relations with Israel without reference to the nuclear is sue, and the sudden focus on this issue was seen as an effort to increase regional status and to enhance the standing of the leadership in the context of Egyptian and Arab politics. For an Egyptian view of this issue, see Esmat A. Ezz, "The concept of N uclear Deterrence as a basis of Security", in Overcoming the Obstacles to Peace in the Post-Cold War Era, VIII International Amaldi Conference of Academies of Sciences and National Scientific Societies, Piacenza, Italy, published by the Accademica Naz ionale dei Lincei, Rome, 1995
8Freier, op. cit.
9 In 1979, a mysterious flash apparently from the South Atlantic was attributed by some to a nuclear test involving Israel and, in some version, South Africa. A White House panel concluded that this flash was not caused by a nuclear test, and no evid ence has been presented since then linking Israel to this incident.
10 Ariel E. Levite and Emily B. Landau, In the Eyes of the Arabs: Israel's Nuclear Image (Hebrew), (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1994)
11 Gerald M. Steinberg, "Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security", Survival, 36:1 (Spring 1994), pp.126-141; Bruce Jentelson, The Middle East Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Talks: Progress, Problems, and Prospects, Institute on Global Con flict and Cooperation, University of California Policy Paper #26, September 1996
12Address by the Foreign Minister of Israel, Mr. Shimon Peres at the Signing Ceremony of the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, Paris, 13 January 1993 (Jerusalem: Foreign Ministry)
13Speech delivered by Foreign Minister David Levi, United Nations General Assembly, October 3 1996 (text provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem)
14 See, for example, Yair Evron, Israel's Nuclear Dilemma, and Gerald M. Steinberg, Strategy, Deterrence, and Arms Control in the Nuclear Age (Hebrew), forthcoming.