The worst-kept secret in the world

Practically no one today misunderstands Shimon Peres when he alludes to the strategic importance of what he helped create in Dimona 50 years ago. For the few who still don’t get it: he isn’t talking about electricity from the nuclear power plant.


In the mid-1960s, prime minister Levi Eshkol pledged that “Israel will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” establishing the Jewish state’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. In 1969, according to declassified records in America’s National Security Archive, president Lyndon Johnson implicitly endorsed the wink-and-nod policy by asking Israel to “make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons” (emphasis added).


Often referred to as the “bomb in the basement” policy, this ambiguity allows Israel a valuable flexibility based on the gap between presumption and certainty. By not declaring that it has nuclear weapons, Israel avoids the scrutiny of international inspection teams (keeps the bomb in the basement); by occasionally hinting that it has awesome defensive capabilities (hauling the bomb up from the basement), Israel creates an effective deterrent against attack.


However, the veil over Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which once was quite opaque, has become transparent with time. It is said that on two occasions, during the Six Day War and during the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s existence had been sufficiently threatened that nuclear bombs were loaded onto jets for what has been dubbed “the Samson option.” Since then, although public mention of Israel’s nuclear weapons is strictly forbidden, several senior officials have let the cat out of the bag.


In 1974, president Ephraim Katzir declared, “It has always been our intention to develop a nuclear potential… We now have that potential.” In 1981, after the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor, former defense and foreign minister Moshe Dayan told The New York Times: “We do have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and if the Arabs are willing to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, then Israel should not be too late in having nuclear weapons, too.”


Following peace talks with the PLO in 1991, Peres has frequently dropped references to Israel’s nuclear deterrence, sometimes crediting it with encouraging the Arab states to accept Israel as a fait accompli and sometimes warning that Israel retains such power in case peace talks fail. In 1998, he said at a press conference in Jordan that Israel had “built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo.”


Even without Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations about the inner workings of the Dimona nuclear facility and 1986 estimate of up to 200 nuclear weapons in Israel’s arsenal, outside observers have plenty of reason to believe that the Jewish state has an advanced weapons program. In 1979, the US Defense Department and CIA recorded an event off the southern coast of Africa that they firmly believe was an Israeli nuclear test. Foreign defense analysts who study the open-source specifications of the Jericho missile, and peruse the publicly available satellite images of its storage and launch facilities southwest of Beit Shemesh, claim that the missile’s only logical application is a nuclear one. Israel’s request that Germany modify the torpedo design of the Dolphin submarines it donated/sold to Israel has been discussed candidly in newspapers and defense journals around the world as counterproductive for anything but a nuclear cruise missile option.


A side effect of the international scandal over Iran is highlighting the growing absurdity of Israel’s policy of ambiguity: While Israel’s greatest current strategic threat is asserting its commitment to a weapons-capable nuclear program and simultaneously pledging to “wipe Israel off the map,” not a single Knesset forum has met to discuss whether Israel should begin to develop a nuclear capability to counter such threats. Why? Because it is well known that Israel already has a formidable nuclear arsenal.


Maintaining nuclear ambiguity today is little more than a formality; it requires a willful disregard of the obvious. Should Iran declare that it has a nuclear weapon, however, Israel could do the same – creating a situation that is anything but ambiguous.


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