When the modern State of Israel was founded 61 years ago, David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, correctly noted that the country could not afford to lose a single war. Consequently, Israel has worked to maintain a high level of military deterrence against the many Arab countries and Islamist groups that seek its destruction.
Soon after its founding, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) embarked on a military training program that produced the best-trained soldiers and fighter pilots in the Middle East. Over the years, Israel also became known for the development of advanced weaponry to maintain a qualitative edge over its foes. To this end, in the 1950s, the Jewish state reportedly acquired the technology to produce nuclear weapons.
The mere belief that Israel possesses a nuclear program has served as an important deterrent in recent decades. While terror groups have picked fights with Israel, no state (with the possible exception of Iraq in 1991) has attempted to engage in a direct war with Israel since 1973.
Now that Iran appears to be on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, the Israeli military establishment must now consider a critical question: will its qualitative military edge hold?
The Upper Hand
Despite its victories against Arab armies in both 1948 and 1956, Israel truly emerged as a formidable military force in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967. Using the element of surprise, Israel launched a blitzkrieg attack and decimated the armies of the surrounding Arab states—Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. While it was almost certainly not known at the time, Israel also had an insurance policy: the country had a nuclear weapon. During the 1967 war, it was likely seen as a last option in the event that the Arab states drew closer to making good on their threats to eliminate Israel.
In 1956, Shimon Peres, Director-General of the Ministry of Defense, orchestrated a deal with French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau and Defense Minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury to acquire nuclear technology. Specifically, Peres arranged to have the French build a reactor in Israel and also to supply the uranium. Peres, only 33-years old at the time, was reportedly obsessed with the atomic project. His colleagues, Israel’s “Young Turks,” regarded the project as nothing less than adventurism. As historian Michael Bar-Zohar notes, Peres recognized that he was “known as a reckless fantasizer, and the program itself seemed so fantastic.”
Ben Gurion, however, believed that the project would only strengthen Israel’s deterrence. With the blessing of the “Old Man,” as Ben Gurion was known, Peres got the project up and running in short order.
From what is now known of the Israeli nuclear program, the project began in 1958. The nucleus of the research and development program was in the Southern Israeli town of Dimona. By the end of the year 1960, as Avner Cohen details in his book Israel and the Bomb, CIA director Allen Dulles informed the National Security Council that he believed the Israelis would be able produce nuclear weapons within a decade. But the CIA’s estimates were off by about five years. It is now known that Israel developed its first nuclear weapon in 1966.
Israel was the sixth nation to acquire nuclear weapons, after the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. But unlike the first five world powers that were large and rich in natural resources, Israel was small and poor, and lacked an industrial base.
The Administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) were initially wary of Israel’s nuclear ambitions. Both administrations initiated a program whereby the U.S. conducted annual visits to Dimona, in an attempt to control the program. In 1966, Israel reached the nuclear threshold, but it decided not to conduct an atomic test.
By 1968, Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol were at odds over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Johnson sought for Israel to become a signatory. Israel, however, adopted a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” and vowed that it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. This is a policy that it still holds today.
The deliberately ambiguous Israeli strategy was three pronged: reassuring Israeli society in tough times; making the Arabs think twice before they thought about attacking; and giving allied countries the comfortable option of not taking a definitive position on Israel’s nuclear capability.
Under the Richard M. Nixon Administration (1969-1973), Israel’s ambiguity was not challenged. Yitzchak Rabin, who at the time served as Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., told Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, that Israel had no intention of signing the NPT. Nixon and Kissinger, both skeptical of the NPT, did not take issue with this position. Accepting Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity subsequently became a cornerstone of U.S. policy though the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan Administrations.
The Vannunu Affair
In 1986, an Israeli national named Mordechai Vannunu divulged sensitive information about Israel’s nuclear program to the media, piercing the veil of the country’s nuclear ambiguity.
Vannunu had worked for nine years as a nuclear reactor technician at the Dimona nuclear research center. Vannunu was disillusioned with his work, and had been influenced by Leftist elements at Ben Gurion University, where he became involved with Palestinian advocates and the anti-war movement.
Before quitting his job, Vannunu clandestinely snapped two rolls of film at the secret plant. In all, he took 57 photographs, including pictures of equipment for extracting radioactive material for arms production and laboratory models of thermonuclear devices. He then sold the photos and his exclusive story to The London Sunday Times. In so doing, Vannunu became the first eyewitness to the nuclear program to speak without authorization.
The Times published a three-page piece on October 5, 1986, titled “Inside Dimona, Israel’s nuclear bomb factory.” Based on Vannunu’s information, at the time of publication, Israel possessed 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, which was much higher than earlier estimates of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
Israel, in keeping with its policies, never confirmed or denied the story. However, Vannunu’s actions were viewed in Israel as a threat to national security. The architect of the Dimona project, Shimon Peres, was Prime Minister of Israel at the time. Peres called for Vannunu’s capture, saying that he “was a traitor to this country.”
Vannunu was captured shortly thereafter. He was lured to Italy by an American woman and kidnapped by Israeli intelligence. He was then tried, convicted of treason, and put in jail for more than 11 years. In the process, Vannunu became an icon of the international anti-nuclear movement.
Some analysts argue that the Vannunu affair did not negatively impact Israel security. Indeed, analysts argue that it might have even increased Israel’s deterrence, since it gave the Arab world a glimpse of the firepower that Israel had amassed since 1966. This arsenal, one could argue, would cause the Arab world to reconsider before tangling with Israel in a conventional or even unconventional battle.
Preventing Nuclear Challengers
While the Israeli nuclear arsenal may serve as a deterrent, Israel’s qualitative edge can be erased through the creation of other nuclear programs by Israel’s enemies in the region. Israel understands this, and has taken bold steps to ensure its edge.
In 1981, for example, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out a daring raid to demolish the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad. More recently, in September 2007, the IAF attacked the Syrian al-Kibar facility, a secret nuclear site that was built with the help of North Korea.
An Attack on Iran?
Iran is the most recent Israeli enemy to attempt to challenge Israel’s edge. The difference is that Tehran has learned from the mistakes of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic Republic has spread its facilities throughout the country. Moreover, the facilities are hardened and subterranean, making them more impervious to attack. Israel, according to a plethora of media reports, is mulling an attack on those sites, as a means to maintain its qualitative edge, and to defuse a radical regime whose president has vowed to “wipe Israel off the map.”
While the attacks in 1981 and 2007 were complex in their own right, an attack on Iran would be even more so. Attacking Iran’s nuclear program would require Israel to hit more than a dozen targets, including possibly moving convoys. The main target sites include: Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges produce enriched uranium; Isfahan, where 250 tons of gas are stored in tunnels; and Arak, the location of the heavy water reactor that produces plutonium. But there could be more than a dozen other sites, according to press reports.
For the moment, Israel is sitting tight. It is giving the Barack Obama Administration the time it has requested to enable its policy of engagement to work. Israel also hopes that punishing multilateral sanctions and the subsequent fallout in the weakened Iranian economy may yet convince the Iranians to back down from their nuclear program.
However, the Israelis know the stakes, and will not leave the country’s fate to chance. Given Iran’s track record of sowing regional instability, embracing radical ideologies, and supporting terrorist organizations, Israel has indicated clearly that it has no plans to stand aside if the Iranians get close to completing their program. Indeed, with no other options, the Israelis will almost certainly attack.
A Tale of Two Programs
The Iranian program, though it is not complete, already poses a threat to the region. Iran’s vows to attack Israel, not to mention the fear that has spread throughout the Arab world, strongly indicate that such a program would be a danger.
Israel’s nuclear program stands in sharp contrast to the advancing Iranian one. While Israel’s arsenal serves as a deterrent, it has never been a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Indeed, Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity is likely responsible for the sharp drop in state-to-state conflicts in recent decades.
Asaf Romirowsky, a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, is a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University, and a PhD candidate at King’s College London.