Israel could make the world a safer place by coming clean about its nuclear arsenal.
If you don’t count border clashes between Pakistan and India, it’s impossible to cite a single example of a national military attacking the sovereignty of a nuclear-armed state. In short, a nuclear arsenal serves as the ultimate security guarantor, and it’s this logic international relations during the Cold War rested upon – with non-nuclear states seeking security guarantees and alliances with either the respective Soviet or US superpowers.
Superpower guarantors and guarantees were of no comfort to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, however, and in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, he asked the French government to help Israel build a nuclear “retaliatory force,” telling his French counterpart, “I don’t trust the guarantees of others.”
In secret—and in defiance of Israel’s primary benefactor, the United States—the self-proclaimed Jewish state joined the club of nuclear-armed nations at some point between 1967 and 1969, despite its now five decade long effort to deny or deceive about its nuclear capabilities.
Israel has deliberately pursued an opaque policy of nuclear deterrence, sometimes referred to as a “policy of ambiguity.”
When the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently appeared on CNN to make accusations against Iran’s currently stalled nuclear weapons program, he illustrated exactly what Israel’s “policy of ambiguity” looks like in doublespeak.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked, "Does Israel have nuclear capabilities and nuclear weapons, yes or no?"
A chastened Netanyahu replied, "We've always said that we won't be the first to introduce it, so we haven't introduced it."
Cuomo pressed harder, "That's not an answer to the question. Do you have them or do you not?"
"It's as good an answer as you're going to get," Netanyahu said.
Israeli historian Shlomo Aronson says Israel has chosen a policy of ambiguity because the objective of nuclear deterrence is to deter attacks on your sovereign borders, and given that the international community rejects Israel's claims to territory it has seized and appropriated, Israel's borders remain undefined.
How many do they have?
Despite Israel’s effort to deny and deflect accusations regarding the size and capabilities of its nuclear arsenal, a private email leaked by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell alluded to Israel having an arsenal of "200 nuclear weapons," which is double the estimate made by the US Intelligence Defense Agency in 1999.
Powell’s leaked email brings out into the open what Israel had successfully convinced four US presidents to put into writing: to never publicly discuss Israel’s undeclared arsenal.
In fact, a recent piece by The New Yorker shows how desperately Israel has sought this promise in the form of a “secret letter” from each newly inaugurated US president.
“The first iteration of the secret letter was drafted during the Clinton Administration, as part of an agreement for Israel’s participation in the 1998 Wye River negotiations with the Palestinians,” writes Adam Entous. “In the letter, according to former officials, President Bill Clinton assured the Jewish state that no future American arms-control initiative would ‘detract’ from Israel’s ‘deterrent’ capabilities, an oblique but clear reference to its nuclear arsenal.”
Almost immediately after President Trump was sworn into office on January 20, 2017, an Israeli delegation, which included Israel’s ambassador to the United States, appeared in the White House to harass Trump into putting his signature to this unofficial letter. According to Entous, Trump administration officials were not only frustrated by their inability to find these “secret letters,” but also annoyed by the Israeli delegation’s pressure, with one senior Trump aide shouting, “This is our f****ng house!”
Avner Cohen, a nuclear historian at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and author of Israel and the Bomb, the defining book on Israel’s nuclear program, says Israel’s desperation for renewing the “secret letters” can be explained by the fact possession of the bomb gives Netanyahu a “sense of impunity, sense of Israel being so powerful, that it can dictate its own terms in the region.”
Do nukes protect Israel?
Scholars of nuclear strategy, however, contend that Israel would be better served by disclosing fully the size and capability of its nuclear arsenal, arguing that Israel’s “policy of ambiguity” no longer serves its interests, the interests of the “peace process” or that of the international community.
From a self-preservation standpoint, a nuclear deterrence is successful only if an aggressor believes attacking would invoke a devastating and catastrophic counter-strike response. By continuing an opaque nuclear deterrence strategy, however, invites miscalculation and misadventure by an attacker, as it leaves open the possibility Israel is bluffing about its capabilities.
“It is conceivable, especially after Israel's ongoing surrender of territories, that some combination of enemy states, still effectively non-nuclear, could conclude that a combined conventional attack against Israel would be gainful,” observes Louis Rene Beres, a professor of international law at Purdue University. “To prevent such a conclusion, thereby maintaining successful nuclear deterrence, Jerusalem would need to convince these enemy states that their prospective combined conventional assault could elicit a full nuclear reprisal.”
In a recent piece, I argued that disclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal matters now more than ever because any number of scenarios could lead to Israel deploying one of its nuclear weapons given Israel’s unofficial nuclear doctrine pivots on the notion it will use a nuclear warhead against an enemy that inflicts "excessive damage" on its civilian population.
Were a mere fraction of the 10,000 missiles pointed at Israel by Hezbollah strike Israeli towns and cities, for instance, it could inflict the kind of “excessive damage” that would justify, at least in the minds of Israeli military planners, a nuclear-armed response.
For this reason alone, Israel has an obligation to finally come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
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